Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve experienced the phenomenon wherein the same theme or problem is seen several times, much more often than one would think. Like when you talk to one friend about fear and pain on Monday, and find yourself talking to five other friends about the same exact subject throughout the week. I like to think this happens because we are all much more connected emotionally than we suppose, but without proof I’ll just be a content observer.
Well this past week, the theme has been success and happiness. And for a lot of people, these two subjects are usually interchangeable- succeeding with our goals would make us happy. But the order of operations (and importance) might need a little more focus.
First, we need to establish what we’re talking about. Let’s say that success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose, and that happiness is an emotion, ranging from contentment to extreme pleasure. Basically, success is doing something you set out to do, and happiness is a good feeling that you have for a given period of time. Now initially, it might be hard to see where these two ideas would not be associated with one another. But for Aron Ralston, an acute awareness can clearly be supposed. The victim of an infamous canyoning accident in 2003, Ralston was forced to cut off his own arm when he became trapped under a dislodged rock for over 5 days in Utah. (You saw ‘127 Hours’ right? No? Good for you.) Well for him, when he had made the decision to amputate his own arm with a dull knife, he knew what success meant. He knew that in his best-case-scenario, he would have a mangled stub of an arm, and severe blood loss, before needing to rappel down to safety. But that is far from happiness.
And yes, some would argue that in some ways he was probably happy because he escaped, but we all know what we would be feeling. And thinking. And saying. While he may have been pleased in an intellectual sense, he almost certainly was not happy. Another example would be Victoria Soto, the Newtown teacher who drew attention away from her students from the shooter, sacrificing her own life in the process. She was willing to die for others, and succeed in saving their lives, but I would not guess that happiness was the primary emotion she was feeling in those last moments.
People tend to do what makes them happiest. Even if it’s indirect (like waking up at 6:00am to get to work), the feeling is there in the end (like getting your paycheck). This is why for most people, success is what would make them happy- because we have set these goals for ourselves, and the results are things that we know would make us happy.
But here is the problem: When we don’t succeed, we aren’t happy. Because our happiness is so tightly knit together with what we define as success, we often cannot find other ways to attain it. Try it. Try to think of the top 5 things in your life that make you happy, and see just how many of them are associated with some idea of success, or accomplishment. But to be clear, I don’t really see this as a bad thing- this enjoyment we as people get from doing well and succeeding is what drives us forward, and makes us want to be better than we are. Without the good feeling that goes along with success, it would be pretty hard to motivate ourselves.
The main idea is this: We as people need to seek out things in life that make us happy, but which are not dependent upon success or achievement. For religious people, this happiness often comes from a feeling of closeness or safety they feel from their connection to god or others. This is indeed one of the most alluring parts of religion: that even if you fail, even if you are lacking in every way in which you know you must be sufficient, there is a god that will pick you up and return you to grace- that it has absolutely nothing to do with what you must do, and everything to do with what has been done for you. For others, it may come from appreciating the beauty, complexity, and general wellness of the world and of the people in it. They see the wonderful, breathtaking activity in the universe, and they are happy- happy to be a part of it, happy to witness it, happy to perhaps even have created it.
I would encourage all people to take stock of their lives, look at the goals they have and the happiness they feel, and organize- fit success into it’s own place, knowing that if it is found, happiness will mostly likely follow. But make sure that your own happiness also has its place, separate and alone from anything that can fall down or be torn apart, because the safer you can keep your happiness, the longer it will last. And the last (and perhaps most important) admonishment I can give is this: do not store your happiness in yourself. We are our own worst critics, and we are all too aware of our own failings. If your happiness is stored up in your own accomplishments, what happens when you fail? What happens when you can’t put food on the table, or keep a roof over your head? Over your kids’ heads? Find the happiness in success, but be sure to find it outside as well. There is plenty out there for us to be happy about, and finding it is one of the best parts of life.
“Oh how great this world, and we so great within it.”
Thank you for reading. As always, leave comments here or on twitter.
Think well, and have a great Thursday.