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Connecting the Dots: Finding Fulfillment

Another aspect of wellness is fulfillment, or cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning and participating in activities that are consistent with your beliefs and values. The definition of “purpose and meaning” is deeply personal and will look different for every individual. Identifying your own values and exploring ways to express those values in your life is essential to having a high quality of life. The World Health Organization defines quality of life as “an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.”

Several studies looking at quality of life for people living with MS have found that disease severity accounts for just over 20% of the differences in mental health, social health, and perceived quality of life. These findings encourage us to take a more comprehensive look at what contributes to a person’s overall sense of well-being including psychological and social factors.

Your sense of fulfillment in life can contribute directly to your perceived quality of life which may correlate with how you physically feel and cope with MS. In one study, individuals with lower quality of life reported more fatigue, sleep problems, pain, depression, and anxiety. They also reported lower levels of self-efficacy, locust of control, and social support. They reported greater levels of disengagement as a means of coping. Those with high quality of life endorsed more use of adaptive coping, and reported greater levels of acceptance, use of social support, and positive reinterpretations and growth as a means of coping.

Having a better sense of your own purpose and meaning can lead to better resilience, which is “the extent to which we can bounce back from adverse events, cope with stress, or succeed in the face of adversity,” according to Dr. Cindy Bergeman, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame. One way to build up resilience is to identify your own strengths and those of your community. When you need extra support, leaning on familiar traditions, ceremonies, and other cultural, spiritual, or religious practices can help provide meaning. Take time today to write out your strengths, your values, and things that are meaningful in your life. Having this list in writing means that you can look at it when you’re starting to feel low or overwhelmed and be reminded of your purpose.

One of the most frequent symptoms of MS is fatigue which can limit the amount of energy you have to give. Living with MS also means that there is a whole host of things (doctor visits, insurance issues, symptom management) that you must deal with that may further restrict the amount of time or energy that you have to put out into the world. Therefore, it is especially important to reflect on your beliefs, values, and priorities so that you can focus your energy and attention on the things that matter most to you. This may relate to big life decisions such as which organizations and events to commit your time to. For instance, volunteering at your child’s school might rank as extremely important to you because it’s time the two of you can spend together. On the other hand, you may not prioritize contributing to the class bake sale because you know that spending time in a hot kitchen will fatigue you and be less meaningful overall. Or you may have to juggle and prioritize smaller day-to-day decisions such as choosing to pick up groceries at the smaller grocery store that is closer to home because you know that it will take less energy than the big store across town.

Again, these decisions are deeply personal and only you can assess what matches your own values and priorities. Unfortunately, there isn’t always an easy or perfectly ideal option. You may have to spend more money in exchange for more time or convenience, or you may have to decline an activity that doesn’t align with your priorities and that person may feel let down. Although you don’t always owe people an explanation, sometimes a conversation about how you made your decision might help them understand.

You can also find fulfillment in little moments: exchanging a text with a friend, watching your child play, learning something new, acknowledging that you did something well, enjoying a nourishing meal, reflecting on or being in nature, or reveling in some small pleasure like clean sheets.

Many people living with MS find a sense of meaning and purpose in volunteering their time with an MS or chronic illness-focused organization to raise awareness or funds. This can also be an excellent way to increase your social connections.

When you are first given a diagnosis of MS, or if your MS changes and you find that you’re not able to do the activities that you used to enjoy, it can be hard to feel a sense of fulfillment or purpose. Talking to a mental health professional may help allow you to process the changes, to grieve the specific vision that you had for your life, and ultimately lead you to re-imagine your life’s purpose. You can also spend time personally reflecting on what brings you meaning and what you want to share with the world. You may need to adapt specific activities. For instance, you may choose to lower the intensity of a physical hobby, or you may come up with something entirely new. Maybe you choose to lead a support group or captain a team to raise funds and awareness for MS even though you’ve considered yourself shy most of your life.

Whatever you decide fulfillment looks like for you, it’s an important aspect of health and well-being that can better equip you to handle the ups and downs of living life with MS. n

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