The Key to a Fulfilling Life? Step into the Choice Point.
Living a fulfilling life is a largely uniform pursuit. While the manifestation of “fulfillment” can vary widely from person to person, whether it be helping people, material comforts, hobbies, religious engagement, family life, professional pursuits, or any other number of avenues to fulfillment, what is generally necessary to experience this fulfillment is a series of choices. To outline a model for this process, Russ Harris, Joseph Ciarrochi, and Ann Bailey, developed a simple, but powerful tool, to help identify the specific way that people engage their choices, and importantly, the barriers that may get in their way. What follows is called “The Choice Point”. While much of the information here is not inherently novel--it may be quite intuitive and logical--integrating this tool into your life can be an effective way to move towards what matters most to you.
You make choices in every moment of every day. Right now, at this very moment, you are making the choice to read this blog. You made the choice to get out of bed this morning and get dressed. Perhaps you made the choice to go to work, or
exercise, or eat something. In every distinct moment that you are doing something, there needs to be an active choice to engage in that “something”. Even just lounging around and doing “nothing” still requires a choice. In every choice that you make, there are two general directions that choice can take you. You can either
move “towards” what matters to you or you can move “away” from matters to you. It's either towards what brings you rewards, fulfillment, meaning, and contact with your values, or it's away from what brings you reward, fulfillment, meaning, and contact with your values. That’s it. Just those two options. Sure, you can make the argument that there can be shades of grey, or nuance where one choice can be a "towards" move and "away" move simultaneously, but as a general rule, when you make a choice you are either moving towards what matters or away from what matters.
In the moment where that choice gets made, there may be difficult internal experiences and situations you will be dealing with. You may have distressing
thoughts, feelings, memories, or physical sensations that are a part of your experience. Or perhaps there may be difficult of stressful external events you are navigating. For the sake of simplicity, let’s define these internal and external experiences as “pain”. This “pain” may influence the choices people make, perhaps resulting in someone making an “away” move. However, these painful experiences are also pretty ubiquitous. If you were to walk into a room of 1,000 people and ask, “Who here experienced thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, or situations that cause you pain or discomfort?”, you’d get 1,000 hands shooting into the air. But if these internal experiences and external stressors are so common, why aren’t everyone’s choices constantly driven by this pain? Well, let’s talk about the mechanism by which your pain becomes the driver of your choice.
The question, in many ways, is not whether or not someone experiences “pain”, but whether or not one gets “hooked” into their pain. Or, if they can successfully “unhook” from their pain. To clarify this point, let me give you a practical example. Let’s say someone is not in good physical health, but this is an important value for them. In that case, going to the gym may be a “towards” move since it brings them towards their value of tending to their health. An “away” move might be sitting on the couch eating a box of cookies and watching TV since this behavior brings them away from their value of tending to their health. In this choice point, there are all kinds of internal experiences this person may have. They may have thoughts about people judging them at the gym for not being strong or looking silly wearing dress socks with sneakers. Or perhaps there are uncomfortable memories of times in the past that this person was bullied and this conjures up anxiety, shame, or frustration. Or maybe there are physical sensations like fatigue, feeling jittery, or chest tightness. If this person were to get hooked into these internal experiences, consumed by them, dominated by them, what do you think they would do? The couch and cookies are starting to look pretty appealing now, huh? But what if the person was able to “unhook” from these experiences? To gently and compassionately observe these internal experiences and recognize them as a part of their experience, but not what needs to define their experience. Well, going to the gym while having these internal experiences doesn’t feel like such an insurmountable task after all!
Perhaps you approach your experience of pain with a problem solving mindset. How do I get rid of my painful thoughts, memories, or emotions? How do I control these parts of my experience? Well, as I noted here, trying to control, avoid, or distract from our internal experiences of pain rarely translates to the long-term change we may hope for. In fact, trying to control these parts of our experience may even contribute to our getting “hooked” into this pain even more!
And, in fact, we may even overemphasize the influence of our pain on our experience of fulfillment. To illustrate my point, let me introduce you to two fictional characters, “Mr. A” and “Mr. B”. Mr. A lives a life free of any pain. No depression, anxiety, or trauma. No financial stress, work stress, or relationship difficulties. No problems. Zero. However, in every single choice point, he chooses an “away” move. Any time he has a chance to engage his values, whatever would bring him a sense of reward or fulfillment, he chooses to move away from those values. Mr. B on the other hand has a mountain of problems. Anxiety, health problems, financial stress, work difficulties, marital discord, and more, Every problem that he could have, he does have. But, in every single choice point, he always chooses a “towards” move. Every single one. He is perpetually engaging the values that matter most to him. Between these two people, who do you think leads a more fulfilling life? You guessed it, Mr. B. Which would seemingly suggest that it is not the presence or absence of pain that is the most consequential in a person’s experience of fulfillment, but the choice the person makes which is the most consequential.
So, let’s recap what we know so far:
1. Your choice is the most influential factor in moving towards fulfillment.
2. Pain is an unfortunate staple of the human experience.
3. We don’t have the full ability to control our experience of pain
4. Getting hooked into pain can make it more difficult to make a “towards” move.
Now what? Well, this is where we discuss “unhooking” tools. In your journey “towards” what matters most, we may be required, at times, to take our pain, place it in the seat next to us in the car, and bring it along for the ride. These four tools are acceptance, mindfulness, cognitive defusion, and the observing mind, which will each be described in greater detail in an upcoming blog post.
But, to begin, we must be able to identify and understand our choices. And, importantly, to own our choices. To get started with this, start off by filling out what your Choice Point might look like, using the diagram below. What matters to you? What values bring you a sense of fulfillment or reward? What are practical choices you can make that might bring you towards those values? Are you making those choices now? If not, what choices are you making instead? What internal experiences are contributing to making those “away” moves? Once you have a solid understanding of what choices you are making and why you are making those choices, you can begin to construct a system to help unhook from your struggle against your pain and move towards what matters most.
The path to fulfillment begins with stepping into the Choice Point.