Updated: Jul 16, 2019
Success. It’s a loaded word that most people spend a lifetime searching for, but which often proves elusive to all but a select few. Perhaps, part of the reason success proves so elusive is due to the fact that people don’t actually know what it is. Do you know with any great certainty what being ‘successful’ actually looks like? Of course, we have our own ideas, but how much of those ideas have been influenced by other people? People such as our parents, friends, teachers, celebrities, Youtubers, Instagramers, politicians or news commentators, are all too keen to remind us at every opportunity of what we should be aspiring to in order to be ‘successful’.
Our conventional definition of success is summarised neatly in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘the attainment of wealth, favour, or eminence’. Yet, if we strive for that narrow definition of success, we eventually realise that achieving ‘success’ doesn’t fulfil us – it is fleeting. Once we attain a goal, we are often quick to dismiss it and set an even bigger goal for ourselves. To make matters worse, our focus on achievement can come at great personal sacrifice and expense. We often sacrifice our relationships, health and happiness for something which ultimately fails to deliver on its lofty promises.
The dark side of 'success'
At its extreme, you have those who appear to have achieved incredible things, such as Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Whitney Houston and Ernest Hemingway, yet all of them died before their time. They readily met the criteria of what most of us would define as ‘successful’, yet they remained emotionally unfulfilled inside. It is a poignant reminder that our happiness rarely resides in achieving material things, such as wealth and status. Unfortunately, most of us are conditioned to believe that in order to be happy we need to be successful and to be successful, well, you know the drill.
Let’s face it, it is a hugely compelling narrative. Everywhere we look, we are reminded of the rules of the game that we call life. We are encouraged to admire the economically wealthy and those in positions of power. We are bombarded on a daily basis by news of the latest stock market fluctuations and the next global financial crisis. A country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the primary yard stick of most governments’ measurement of success. As a result, leaders of organisations make decisions that negatively affect the lives of those in their care, based on arbitrary financial criteria, at an arbitrary point in time. Individuals take out loans to buy things they can’t afford, which rarely produce more happiness. Essentially, many of us place far too much emphasis on material things that don't enrich our life, in attempting to cultivate greater happiness. The problem is, rarely do those things lead to greater positive emotional wealth.
Challenging conventional wisdom
Research over the last few decades has found very little correlation between things such as money and status culminating in greater happiness and fulfilment. Why is that important? I meet many people who are on a strict path to achieve ‘success’, be that career success, monetary success or otherwise. They will readily sacrifice their own wellbeing, often negatively impacting the wellbeing of those around them, to do so. All in the mistaken belief that success, in whatever guise it takes, will fulfil them. It rarely does. I should know, for a long-time the conventional definition of success was my primary motivator. I wanted to earn more money and climb my way up the corporate ladder, because that is what was expected of me and what I believed would make me happy. It didn’t - it made me ill. I found myself constantly striving for more, never satisfied with my achievements. If that sounds familiar, it’s because far too many of us are making the same mistake.
I had no idea about concepts such as hedonic and eudaimonic happiness (we should prioritise the latter even though the former feels really good in the moment), or any real understanding about what drives long-term happiness and fulfilment. It transpires that all of us can learn a thing or two about the science of happiness. It may just save a life. Those things that ultimately provide us with long-term fulfilment are not what we believe them to be. One of the things that fundamentally altered my approach to life was learning that our external circumstances have very little effect on our overall levels of happiness.
When I coach people, I ask them what they believe has the biggest influence on their levels of happiness. 90% of them believe that it is their external circumstances that are the primary driver of their happiness - therein lies the problem. They are allowing someone or something else to dictate when they can feel happy. Yet, research demonstrates that the behaviours we adopt are four times more potent in influencing our happiness than the environment we find ourselves in.
Nothing changes outside unless we change inside
Research conducted in the 1980s looked at the happiness of lottery winners versus those who became paraplegic following an accident. While the happiness levels of both groups diverged significantly immediately following the event, after 12 months, the millionaires were no happier than the paraplegics. They had returned to what scientists term their happiness set-point, primarily because, while their circumstances had changed, their behaviours had not. The way we process information shapes the external world that we experience. If we don’t change the way we process information in our brain or the meaning we have associated with things, it is unlikely that external circumstances will significantly shift how we feel in the long-term. If we are a pessimist and have a tendency to ruminate on negatives, we will remain a pessimist. If we are easily agitated, we will remain so unless we make a conscious decision to change how we react. Yet, too few of us pause to create the behaviours we need to thrive. We live life on autopilot without realising that we can take back control of the wheel at any time and create new more empowering ways of thinking and being that can tangibly alter our life’s trajectory.
So, what behaviours lead to greater happiness and overall fulfilment? Every morning when we wake up, we have a choice. We can choose to live life as we always have or we can actively decide to experience life in a more positive state. We can choose to be kinder, more compassionate, more grateful, more loving, more humble, more courageous, more playful, more hopeful and experience life with more joy and curiosity. It is those behaviours that research shows actually fulfil us and make us happy. We are hardwired to give, to learn and to grow, but many of us are so busy holding onto stress, fear and resentment than we spend out day experiencing those things, even though we have the power to change our state in an instant, by shifting our focus and choosing positive intent. The more positive decisions we make about how we experience the world, the more positive our experience will become. Over time, with practice, those choices will become our default response and will become almost effortless - creating an enhanced happiness set-point.
In redefining what success looks like, perhaps we should focus more on how we cultivate greater fulfilment. How we savour what we already have, rather than pine over what we don’t. We should ask ourselves how we can contribute to something greater than ourselves. How can we give more and show more kindness to those around us? How can we genuinely make a positive difference to those that we care about? Perhaps if we spend more time on those people or practices that are important rather than allowing ourselves to be consumed with those things that appear urgent in the moment, we can cultivate a greater sense of fulfilment.
Success should be much more about emotional wealth rather than simply financial wealth. There is no denying that we need a certain basic level of financial security, but it is just one element of what makes up our wellbeing, and is not the biggest driver of happiness and fulfilment by a long way. Research has consistently shown that once we hit a certain level of income (circa $70,000/£50,000), more money doesn’t equate to more happiness. In most instances more money has actually been shown to reduce levels of happiness. Money essentially buys us security and peace of mind, but beyond that we need to look beyond our own self-interest to the needs of our tribe, if we are to create our own ‘happily ever after’.
If you find yourself constantly striving for more, but feeling short-changed every time you think you’ve tasted success, perhaps it is time to redefine your definition of what success looks like? When all is said and done, it is our emotions that create meaning in our life and there is no greater emotion than love.