Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Exploring Happiness Pre-requisites: Success

I continue exploring the commonly agreed upon major pre-requisites for happiness.

art by ~dhuusaraH

"There is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way."                                                                                                 ~Christopher Morley

For a long time in our culture happiness is closely intertwined with success. It's like it is a two way door, and happiness and success are the keys to the other side: being successful is the key to being happy. It works the other way around as well:  happiness is the key to success. Once we get one of them, they should form a loop - becoming more successful begets happiness, which begets more success, which results in more happiness.

So where do the successful but unhappy people fit in? How many news reports we've heard about successful millionaire businessmen committing suicide, or successful and loved celebrities checking in psychiatric facilities? Surely they don't do it from the overabundance of happiness in their lives.

Our society places a big emphasis on its definition of success. Whatever we do, we have to be successful. And we do not allow for moderation in this area. If we do not want to succeed, why do anything to begin with? And once we have succeeded, it is unwise to stop. We are taught to never stop, to push for more.

But when there is no moderation, any good thing starts to turn into something else.

Success is such a wonderful, optimistic, happy concept! It challenges us to reach more. It rewards us with feelings of joy, satisfaction, self-worth, self-respect. And it often results in better life conditions. But being stressed too much, it produces opposite effects. Optimism becomes pessimism that nothing is ever enough, and majority of us will not achieve what we set out for. Happiness turns into despair for being a failure. Healthy incentive transforms into sickening stress, and excitement becomes anxiety.

If we follow a cause and effect logic, we will easily see the reason for such gap between what success stands for and how it actually impacts our lives. Success is the attainment of our goals. If our goal is to be a healthy person, then success is to lose weight, quit smoking and take up exercise. If our goal is to be a happy person, then success is to smile, to enjoy life, to be at piece with the world, the ability to be in charge of our attitude. If the goal is to be affluent, then success means becoming wealthy, getting a big house and designer cloths. Our society glorifies competition-based success – becoming better then others, more beautiful than others, more popular than others, more powerful than others, and of course richer than others.

This success “competition” starts earlier with every generation. The little ones are expected to pass tests to enter better pre-schools. There are more moms that put their precious tiny three and four-year olds in additional reading classes, math classes, music classes, any kinds of classes. Kids this age are often not yet capable of really benefitting from this education. Sometimes we make them go against their will. Why? Because we know better. Because we hope it will give then an early start, and they will be able to go to good colleges down the line. We believe it will give them the tools to become more successful in adult life. Mostly, because we are just caught up in this success-oriented thinking and we want to teach it to our kids as soon as possible.

Older kids are stressed even more to go to lots of different afterschool activities and have a shelf full of medals and awards to show for them.

Teenagers are under more stress. Not only they have to be smart, athletic, and popular, they also need to be involved in romantic relationships, or else they are made to feel like failures.  It is an unforgiving competition of who has the largest number of “friends” on social networking and who has got the most boyfriends/girlfriends and what they have already done with them.

Success is not merely suggested. It is demanded of all of us. Professional athletes are not considered successful if they did not win the first place.  It is amazing to see some athletes who look sad or even ashamed to have won second or third place in a major competition.

Some of us set even stricter requirement for themselves. People who are plenty successful by society norms are still unhappy, because they demand more of themselves. They rarely feel contentment and satisfaction. They still feel they are not doing well enough. That sort of expectations is even harder to overcome, because it comes from ourselves.

We have to succeed. We get inspired by hearing that "some people dream of success while others make it happen". We have to climb the social and carrier ladders even if it kills us (and sometimes it does). But the final destination is worth it. After we reach our goals, and became successful by the standards of society, we get to be happy. We finally deserve it. Oh, sweet success.

Sadly, it takes a long time to reach the level of success expected of truly successful people. And often, when we finally reach our goals and become successful as we understand it, after we experience elation, we may suddenly feel empty. If there are no bigger goals and nothing to strive for anymore, then by definition, there will be no success in the future. This is a shock for those who are so used to moving towards the generally accepted aims.

The society preaches and praises success, but it does not preach the idea of “enough”. Successful entrepreneurs are expected to become millionaires, while successful millionaires should become multi-millionaires, and so on. It just feels wrong if they maintain the same level of wealth and not work on making more.

This competitive culture in business, social and emotional spheres thwarts the essence of real happiness - contentment. How can anyone be content, when so much is expected of them, and it is always anticipated to do a little better, to reach a little higher?

These heightened expectations and judgment on who is successful and who is not render many in the “not” section, feeling somehow lacking. But in line with society expectations, which insist on being cheerful, we often feel obliged to keep the fake smiles. “Fake it till you make it”. And after all the necessary social functions are over, lots of smiling people go home and take their antidepressive medications.

Generally, we do not feel content enough until we reach the goal. Unfortunately, we forget that the happiness of achieving tends to be short term. We disregard the long-term kind of happiness - the happiness of striving, of acting on our dreams, on bettering ourselves. We keep our eyes so fixed on the target, that we forget to enjoy the process itself.
To be happily successful, first we must decide what our most important goals are in life. They may or may not coincide with the commonly lauded goals, or be a combination. Even though true happiness rarely results from possessions, social status or any other outside factors, we should not limit our goals solely to possessing a peaceful and joyful attitude toward any outcome. If we like what society has to offer, we should go for it!
Once we decide what is most meaningful to us, we will not feel so stifled and stressed by the societal pressures, as we will determine our own happiness pre-requisites. While we spend our lives getting what we want, we should keep the desire to succeed strong enough to spur us on but not too strong to cause a breakdown. And keep in mind that success is not only what is achieved, but what we had to do to get there.
Good Luck!

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