The dream of success seems to be what drives the self-help publishing industry, where every other book that comes out is on how to achieve success!
But success can mean vastly different things to different people.
What is your definition of success? And can being successful make you happy?
Our achievements can bring us satisfaction, but once a goal is reached, we soon start looking for the next one.
Having met many high achievers over the years, through my work and in my private life, I’ve come to realise that outward success is no guarantee of inner contentment. In fact, the opposite is often true. People who experience success can have a tendency to be unhappy, because they feel they have to keep up the successful image, so they risk becoming addicted to success – which can lead to all sorts of existential issues.
Addiction, to anything, can cause much suffering to the addict and the people around them. When addicted to success, your sense of identity is very fragile, as it relies heavily on the amount of money you earn or the praise you receive from others, which can fluctuate widely. Think of political leaders, or pop singers, and how fickle their supporters or fan base can be.
Like any form of addiction, the aim is to run away from ourselves and to numb rather than face any emotional pain. Indeed, a common ‘side effect’ of worldly success is the split that takes place between the public persona and the inner self, the latter remaining hidden, or suppressed, to the point that you lose touch with who you truly are.
Sadly, we live in a society that puts professional and financial success before anything else. This creates much competition and has negative effects on the workforce: mental health problems are now the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, and 60% of full-time employees worldwide report being stressed all or most of the time at work.
Clearly, something isn’t right. Perhaps we need to reconsider our priorities with regard to success and happiness and realise that it is impossible to have one without the other.
Neuroscience and positive psychology studies prove that happiness is crucial to achieving success. By triggering the release of hormones that enhance memory, focus, motivation and problem-solving, positive emotions help the brain work better.
How do we achieve happiness?
Some of those studies also show that we all do better at subjects we like because our brains work better when we’re engaged in the activities we enjoy. This is exactly what positive psychology is about: identifying our strengths and using them in our social and professional interactions in order to contribute to the happiness of others. This, in turn, will increase our own happiness.
Another effective way of increasing happiness is being present. A Harvard study shows that, on average, we spend about 50% of our waking time thinking about something other than what is happening right now. We all know that ruminating about past events or worrying about the future does not make us happy. Therefore, we must learn to focus on what is happening in the present moment. In other words, we must develop the skill of mindfulness.
In a 78-year-long study on adult development, aiming to reveal clues to leading a happy and healthy life, researchers looked at every aspect of the lives of the 724 individuals, from very diverse social backgrounds, who participated in the study. What they found was that healthy relationships have the single most powerful positive influence on our overall health and happiness; they can literally protect us from physical and mental decline.
It seems evident that close human relationships mean a lot more than money or fame. Yet, various surveys show that the two most popular life goals for young adults nowadays are precisely those – money and fame.
To be clear, I do not believe success in itself to be a bad thing. On the contrary, self-realisation, as in ‘the fulfilment of one’s own potential’, is a great thing that can only contribute to overall happiness. But the term ‘self-realisation’ can also refer to a state of being where a person knows who they truly are and finds fulfilment in that awareness, regardless of external recognition.
Most of us, however, long for that recognition to some degree or another, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but in order to maintain emotional balance, high achievers must question the reasons behind their drive to succeed and be very vigilant not to let that drive quash their deeper, more authentic needs.