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What does success really mean?
The media bombards us with messages that success means having money, power, privilege, or beauty.
Our parents have another idea of what success means, pushing for job security, financial stability, and raising well-adjusted children.
Success means something different for everyone, so what is the true meaning of success?
It means living in alignment with your personal definition of success by staying true to your values and taking meaningful actions toward your own valued goals.
In this article, I dive into the science and philosophy of what success really means and how it affects your level of satisfaction in life.
The Meaning of Success in Modern Society
“I want the money, money and the cars, cars and the clothes… I just wanna be successful.Trey Songz – Successful
When it comes down to it, “the good life” actually means a life of happiness. But where does happiness come from?
Media definition of success tells us it can be found in material possessions, status, and a life filled with luxury. But as many of us already know, these things can bring pleasure, but this version of happiness is like a bottomless pit, needing to be fueled by ever more stimulus to sustain it, eventually making us miserable.
A report by the Association for Psychological Science confirms this, finding:
“Simply having a bunch of things is not the key to happiness…[.] Our data show that you also need to appreciate those things you have. It’s also important to keep your desire for things you don’t own in check.”
But why do we continue to desire the infinite? Can we ever fill the void?
The answer is no.
Just like someone self-medicating with drugs or addictive behaviors, there is never enough.
Part of the desire for material possessions is the desire for acceptance from others. When the need for acceptance is unmet and we do not accept ourselves, we give up our own version of success for society’s definition.
Chuck Palahniuk says it best in Fight Club:
“The things you own end up owning you.”
Even though you may still feel like you’re in the driver seat of your life, you know deep down that you’re driving down the wrong road.
As the sense of resentment grows, the morphine drip of material comforts, social status, and security numbs this nagging feeling. As stated in Fight Club:
“We buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.”
Affluent society masks its hypocrisy with a veneer of politeness and good manners. Symbols of material success become symbols of moral success, disguising the state of moral lack. As William James said:
“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”
This false image of success keeps us always looking for more.
Bigger, better, smarter, faster, stronger, more attention, more stuff! The more we get, the more we want.
Émile Durkheim characterizes this state of moral flabbiness in the following way:
“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture.”
Drinking from the seductive cup of material success will only make you thirstier.
This classic sociological wisdom is backed by contemporary science. In a 2016 article on income and happiness, the author’s state find that happiness does increase as income rises, but gains diminish after a household income ofÂ $80,000 a year. These gains reach zero at $200,000 a year.
Therefore, having a reasonable level of financial security reduces negative emotions, but the pursuit of infinite wealth does not contribute to happiness.
This finding has also been replicated on a broader level, looking at the correlation between a countries wealth and the happiness of its citizens. In this 2010 article, the authors state:
“…over the long-term, usually a period of 10 years or more, happiness does not increase as a country’s income rises.”
Similar to the previous study, happiness does decline in a state of economic contraction, likely due to a sense of financial insecurity. But in the long term, the pursuit of infinite wealth does not increase a countries happiness.
Let’s now turn to lessons from classic literature.
In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy gives a tragic account of a man who wasted his whole life conforming to an empty social norm. On his deathbed, Ivan Illych comes to question the whole of his life. Had he been merely going through the prescribed motions? In the society depicted, success comes at the cost of meaningful human relations.
As stated by Psychologist Mark Freeman in his 1997 publication in Cambridge Journal’s Ageing & Society:
“Tolstoy’s book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one’s life.“
A true and abiding connection to one’s life means living beyond the superficial success game.
Psychological science also backs this up.
In The Harvard Grant Study, the researchers studied the same group of men for nearly 80 years, trying to uncover what leads to a happier life, finding:
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”
Veterans returning from deployment know this better than anyone else.
Upon returning from a world where every decision means the difference between life and death, they are quick to diagnose our society’s individualism.
As one Canadian veteran I interviewed states:
“It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.”
“There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered”
Bryan Wood, a U.S veteran, mirrors this sentiment in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, his sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:
“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life. I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
“You’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead”
Consumer culture leads us away from the true and abiding connection to one’s life that comes with following our own definition of success.
To learn more about how my research on veterans informs my understanding of success in civilian life, you can check out my article, 6 Things Veterans Can Teach Us About Life.
A Deeper Understanding of Success
“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly” Radiohead
Imagine you are at a funeral.
A close friend of the deceased steps up to the pulpit and proceeds with the following eulogy:
He was a hard workerâ€¦ highly organized and independent, a skilled communicator who could work well with others, detail-oriented, and was able to work efficiently in a fast-paced environment.
He was a wise man, never received a grade lower than an A-, balanced a full course-load with extracurricular activities, and maintained a full scholarship throughout college.
He was a loving man. He loved the sweet taste of victory every time he closed a deal.
He was a committed man. He was always committed to the bottom line and he could consistently increase profits by 30% each quarter.
You would be startled by this friend who completely neglected the things that actually matter.
Rather than a eulogy, it would look as if the friend were speaking on behalf of the deceased for a postmortem job interview.
But if these things don’t actually matter, why do we spend the majority of our time focused on building these resume virtues while neglecting the eulogy virtues?
InÂ The Road to Character, David Brooks illustrates how we are living in an age increasingly dominated by the resume virtues. He argues that our increased focus on building our resumes has distracted us from deeper virtues.
These deeper virtues include a deep and abiding philosophy of life, the ability to love compassionately, and the ability to commit oneself to the discipline of service to a larger moral cause.
So what’s wrong with ambition and the desire to get ahead?
Nothing is wrong with having ambitions; the problem is having an unbalanced level of ambition associated with the resume virtues, while completely neglecting the eulogy virtues.
Consider a person who goes to professional conferences for the sole purpose of building their resume and promoting their personal brand.
They pass from person to person, handing out their business card, trying to weasel into conversions with prestigious figures. They operate on an autopilot “what can I get” mentality, spamming everyone who is deemed useful.
A thin veneer of self-importance masks their inner-fragility, but no one is fooled. Like Radiohead said in Paranoid Android, Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.
As a lecturer in sociology at Eastern Michigan University, I have seen this resume-focused culture among students who feel crushed by the pressure to constantly perform to the point where anything lower than an A seems like a failing grade.
Many students have come to view their education as an obstacle to overcome so they can look impressive on paper in order to attain high paying jobs. But this is not necessarily their fault. The impersonal bureaucratized education system uses GPAs and standardized tests to sort through a large number of applicants.
This system produces grade-obsession, overshadowing self-cultivation, and character development. Simply memorizing a set of factual bullet-points for the exam has become the main goal for many students. This type of ambition is neither in the best interest of students or the broader society.
The real world does not want someone who simply knows a lot of facts; we have Google for that. The real world wants people who understand how to useÂ knowledge to solve problems.
In order to solve the world’s problems, we need people who are self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and have a disciplined sense of commitment to serving a larger cause.
These are the characteristics associated with the eulogy virtues. These are the characteristics that will save us from ugliness.
Aristotle gave us a version of the good life that is not only sustainable, but it also promotes true happiness.
His first principle is that all things aim at “the good”. Like archers directing an arrow toward a target, “the good” is the ultimate target of our actions. The problem is that this ultimate aim is often interrupted.
As Jean Vanier states in Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle:
Today, as always, many people are not interested in the target, that is to say, the ultimate end of their actions. They are prompted by what everyone wants â€” as if their family, society, and the media were determining their development. Of course they want success, pleasure, recognition, but without really knowing why. They are caught up in short-term projects that prevent them from thinking about the purpose and meaning of human life.
Aristotle tells us that the key to redirecting our life toward “the good” is to use our reason to direct our passions and chaotic desires toward virtue. Jean Vanier gives the following metaphor of reason taking the reins of the passions:
Like runaway, riderless horses, they await direction. Man’s proper task is to take hold of the reins and guide them, to orient these desires, with all their fulminating energy, towards the sought-after end.
The problem is that this is far easier said than done.
How to Build a Better Version of Success
If you are addicted to the socially construed definition of success, it is not easy to simply suppress your deep emotional attachments to this way of life.
Our minds are driven by our emotions.
Contemporary moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, empirically demonstrates that David Hume’s passion-driven conception of human reason is more in line with reality.
Rather than a rider taking the reigns of a horse, Haidt says reason is more like a rider on an elephant.
Although reason can nudge us in a specific direction, the emotions, represented by the elephant, overwhelmingly drive our behavior. Since reason is not sovereign, this idea flips Aristotle’s method of virtuous self-development on his head, forcing us to train our emotions rather than our reason.
How does one go about training their emotions?
In the case of psychological disorders, emotion-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy or present-centered breathing techniques may be beneficial.
But beyond the case of psychological disorders, a morally virtuous character is not built from within. Rather, the virtuous character is built between the individual and society.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt gives two possible methods of facilitating this type of interaction:
What is the meaning of life? The question is unanswerable in that form, but with a slight rephrasing we can answer it. Part of the answer is to tie yourself down, commit yourself to people and projects, and enter a state of â€œvital engagementâ€ with them. The other part is to attain a state of “cross-level coherence” within yourself, and within your life. Religion is an evolved mechanism for satisfying these needs. We can find meaning and happiness without religion, but we must understand our evolved religious nature before we can find effective substitutes.
So to recap, the archer whose target is “the good life” is not merely distracted by emotions, but driven by them.
Training the emotional elephant can take the form of individual therapy, but must take the form of vital social engagement to build a virtuous character.
Developing this character is its own reward, producing happiness throughout the process. Therefore, happiness is not to be confused with”the good life”.
If “the good life” is the target, happiness is the vehicle by which one works toward it. Happiness is facilitated by social forces that promote moral commitment such as work and community life.
Johnathen Haidt also raises the important question of how a diverse society can promote a common morality:
Is virtue its own reward? Yes, but in the modern West we’ve lost the ability to grow most virtues in good soil, and we’ve reduced virtue to just being nice. Where did we go wrong, and how can we forge a common morality in a diverse society?
Fundamentally, man’s desire toward “the good life” is the desire to have a common purpose found in community.
Individualistic social contexts have a tendency to leave this desire unfulfilled. This results in the pursuit of status, encouraged by the success ideolog, as highlighted at the beginning of this post.
Luxurious lifestyles and status symbols can give us the thrill of temporary pleasure, but it is ultimately a bottomless pit, always demanding more.
True happiness comes from a life of virtue, nourished by a moral social context that provides purpose and direction, promoting our lives together.
For a deeper look at the meaning of purpose, you can check out my article, What Does it Mean to Have a Purpose.
How A Company is Redefining Success
â€œWe asked ourselves what we wanted this company to stand for. We didn’t want to just sell shoes. I wasn’t even into shoes – but I was passionate about customer service.” Tony Hsieh
It is no secret that the key to Zappos’ success is its unique company culture. The turning point occurred when founder Tony Hsieh changed their guiding principle from profits to service.
In Delivering Happiness, Tony outlines his insights into company culture throughout his entrepreneurial career. Taking insights from the field of positive psychology and applying it to his organizational setting, Tony has been able to create a cult-like environment that inspires individuals through service.
Although the concept of service has its roots in the religious-life of ritual, the sociologist Émile Durkheim argued that occupational groups would take over this function in the modern era. But as we have seen in the development of corporate America, this is often not the case.
Decidedly breaking from the culture of greed as a motivator, Zappos has created a cult of service. Inspiring rather than motivating has been Tony’s goal.
But how does service inspire individuals, making them happier? The answer is the meaning and sense of purpose that comes with service to a cause outside of ourselves.
At Zappos, achieving happiness comes from delivering happiness. The culture of service Tony has been able to achieve inspires employees by giving them a sense of purpose outside themselves. This is supported throughout the workplace structure at Zappos.
A prime example of how Zappos is redefining success is the lack of time-restrictions on customer service phone calls and a large amount of staff allotted to this position. This allows employees to focus on serving the customer, rather than call-time efficiency. Tony actually reported that their record call-time was seven and a half hours with a customer!
The foundation of Zappos’ company culture centers on its core values. These are the guiding principals that support a positive environment where individuals gain a sense of comradery rather than a sense of competition.
Unlike most organizations, their core values are actually relevant, meaningful, and drawn upon to determine who is hired and fired. This means that individuals who are highly qualified will not be hired or retained if they are not in line with the core values.
Instead of assuming individuals are motivated by an endless pursuit of wealth, Zappos focuses its resources on building a workplace that fosters positive relations and provides a structure that allows employees to serve.
Check out the Zappos Family Culture Book, for first-hand accounts of the powerful workplace culture at Zappos.
True success means staying true to a deeper sense of purpose, despite deviating from a superficial social norm.
It means finding joy in suffering. It means having the courage to peruse one’s own journey when confronted by the fear of uncertainty.
In a world characterized by rapidly growing uncertainty, we can try to seek solace in the empty promise of conventional success, or we can choose our own path.
Although it is our own path, we need to be aware of how this path connects us to a cause or community beyond ourselves.
Living in aliment with our core values allows us to genuinely connect with others rather than trying to gain a false sense of acceptance through status.
Hopefully, this article has helped clarify the true meaning of success.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, you can check out my articles on Identity, Purpose, and Belonging.
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The phrase, “it’s lonely at the top” suggests success causes loneliness. But what does the research say on whether successful people are actually at risk of loneliness?
According to Thomas Joiner in Lonely at the Top, success can cause loneliness when people neglect the quality and quantity of their close social relations in favor of focusing on instrumental goals associated with success.
Although being successful does not guarantee loneliness, it can be a risk factor for loneliness, especially among successful older men.
Let’s take a closer look at what causes this form of loneliness.
Career Success Among Men
For millennia, men have enjoyed a disproportionate amount of wealth and power. Although the gender gap is now narrowing, women still earn roughly 74 cents for every dollar men earn.
Part of this gap may be due to discrimination, but another explanation is that women might be more likely to choose life-satisfaction over higher earnings.
Although men have held political and economic superiority, their success has lead to suffering from higher levels of loneliness. In Lonely at the Top, Thomas Joiner looks at the high cost of men’s success, showing that men’s loneliness is caused by their privilege. He states:
Much attention is focused, rightly, on men’s disproportionate share of wealth and power; too little attention is spent on men’s disproportionate share of misery, one index of which is high suicide rates.
How Success Causes Loneliness Among Men
Thomas Joiner argues that the loneliness and resulting misery are caused by ignoring relationships in favor of instrumental activities such as efficient problem-solving and a “go-getter” attitude to goal attainment.
Instrumental goals include focusing on getting ahead financially and out-competing others in the workplace. They include focusing on transactions over social relations.
This mentality is highlighted in the movie Glengarry GlenRoss:
ABC. “A”, always. “B”, be. “C”, closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. Always be closing…[.] you can’t play the man’s game, you can’t close them, and then tell your wife your troubles.
Joiner states that higher levels of instrumentality give a sense of purpose and contribute to lower levels of depression in men compared to women, but women’s greater focus on relationships is a protective factor later in life.
After retirement, men are more likely to suffer the effects of their relational neglect. The competitive career orientation may drive successful men in their careers, but this success comes at a high cost.
There is also a physical cost of men’s success, potentially leading to physical health complications.
As discovered in a study on loneliness:
“Loneliness is as strong a risk factor for illness and death as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure,”
In addition to the physical costs, there are mental health costs. Upon retirement, men not only lose a sense of purpose, but they also lose many of their casual acquaintances at the workplace. This double loss increases the risk of suicide due to feeling isolated and lacking purpose. You can read more about this topic in my articles on suicide and mental health.
Joiner’s message is clear: men are privileged, instrumentally oriented, therefore neglect facilitating strong deep social ties, resulting in likely suffering from chronic loneliness later in life, perhaps without even recognizing how bad it is until it’s too late.
Solutions to the problem require men to focus on maintaining and deepening meaningful social ties, particularly later in life, or during retirement when they are most at risk.
Joiner recommends hobbies, regular gatherings with friends, and even using Facebook, which Joiner regards as a useful platform to stay connected with others, despite its potential for overuse. I talk more about how to use social media in a healthy way in my article on social media addiction.
Loneliness Among Male Veterans
In terms of my own research, the social transition faced by veterans returning to civilian life puts them at risk of experiencing loneliness.
One Canadian veteran recounts his experience transitioning into law school after the military. He states:
“[At law school] you’re in a large group, but ultimately you’re alone…. In the military you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.”
In terms of regaining a sense of belonging, veterans I spoke with found that non-traditional veterans groups were valuable. Treble Victor is one of the groups several individuals found helped them reconnect in civilian life. One individual stated:
“The experience [of transition] had been marked by quasi-isolation and challenges to connect with people. When I got to Treble Victor, I just walked in the room and the group felt very familiar and extremely welcoming, it was very much a social setting that was similar to what I had experienced while I was serving, so the comradery, the openness to connect, and the sense of trust, it’s like meeting family you never met.”
Although this issue is common among all veterans, it was especially difficult for those entering the highly individualistic white-collar professions. The Treble Victor veterans entrepreneurial group is a creative solution to this problem and can perhaps serve as a model for combating loneliness among civilian business-persons as well.
If you’re interested in reading more of my research on veterans, you can check out my articles on veterans in transition.
Preventing the Loneliness that Comes With Success
Although success may be a risk factor for loneliness, there are ways to prevent this issue before it starts. This involves focusing on the quality and quantity of one’s close social relations.
The ability to connect with others facilitates a positive sense of social identity which is necessary for individuals to feel a sense of belonging and significance.
As Hugh Mackay writes in The Good Life:
“…our identity is social at least as much as personal.”
Men’s identities have been traditionally tied to instrumental career attainment, neglecting the maintenance of quality interpersonal ties. This is why, as Joiner says, men are “lonely at the top.”
Retirement or career transitions can also trigger this state – especially in the case of veterans, whose life in the military facilitated deep ties to those they served with, but leaves them often struggling to reconnect in an individualistic civilian world.
Loneliness is a risk factor for success, especially among older men. Preventing loneliness requires one to focus on the quality and quantity of one’s close social relations.
Men who lose meaningful social ties due to an overemphasis on instrumentalism may find themselves lonely at the top.
In addition, those who leave the military lose the social identity formed through deep ties to those they served with.
This is important because loneliness is a significant risk factor for suicide, as well as mortality through physical illness.
Men need to recognize this is a significant issue and take action to work on their interpersonal relations. Lastly, as a society, we need to acknowledge this issue and facilitate men’s social connectedness.
If you’re interested in reading more about how social connection contributes to better overall health, you can check out my article, What Is Social Health?
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As a millennial, I am no stranger to the idea of following your passion.
Many of us are focused on following a passion, not satisfied settling on a career for the sole sake of making money.
So what does it mean to follow your passion?
Following your passion means exploring areas that spark your interest, developing your skills in a specific area, and using those skills to contribute to something beyond yourself.
This article explores the idea of what it means to follow your passion and considers a better path to achieving satisfaction in your career and in life.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
What is the Meaning of ‘Passion’?
Passion means sacrificial suffering as well as strong sexual desire. Referring to both sex and death, passion encompasses the cycle of life in one word.
The Latin origin of passion is “pati,” meaning “suffer,” and the word gained popularity in Christian theology referring to the sacrificial suffering of martyrs.
In the sixteenth century, passion began to refer to sexual love and a sense of strong liking or enthusiasm, seemingly the opposite of its original use. Although passion can still refer to pain and suffering – as seen in The Passion of the Christ – today, the word mainly conjures up strong connotations of pleasure and desire.
Although seemingly contradictory, the paradoxical nature of passion needs to be understood before applying it to practical issues.
The word has lost its depth in the popular personal development genre whose gurus overemphasize states of blissful contentment. In this sense, “follow your passion” becomes a difficult piece of advice to follow since it turns one’s passion into a fleeting emotional state.
Ask Canadian teenaged boys about their passion and most of them will tell you that it’s hockey – based on a study by Robert J. Vallerand. The problem is that almost all of them will eventually need to give up the dream of playing for the NHL.
But this does not mean they failed to pursue their passion; it just means they need to realize passions are developed, not simply found. This development takes hard word.
As Cal Newport states:
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
Both passionate martyrs and passionate lovers share the ability to lose themselves in an act. One suffers the cost of great pain, while the other derives pleasure. The martyr and the lover are the archetypes of passion and we need them both when developing a passion.
Losing oneself in one’s work is not an eternal bliss. The pain and pleasure of passion are intertwined, rewarding those on the journey who persevere.
Should you Follow Your Passion?
“‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.” – Cal Newport
So why is “follow your passion” bad advice?
First of all, it assumes your “passion” is a specific thing inside of you, waiting to be uncovered. In fact, it is the other way around: our passion is a byproduct of doing great work. In Drive, Daniel H. Pink makes the case that career happiness comes from having a position that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
This means we need to have a level of control over our work, feel that we are advancing our skills, and have a sense that we are contributing to a larger purpose outside ourselves.
Therefore, our passion develops with an activity, not uncovered beforehand. Defining your passion beforehand can limit potential opportunities to attain work that offers these three characteristics that facilitate career happiness.
Your passion may not be what you think…
Take the example of Gary Vaynerchuk who has been a successful entrepreneur since he could ride his bike around the block to collect cash from his various lemonade stands.
Growing up, his first passion was baseball cards. As an adolescent he learned everything there was to know about baseball cards, turning his passion into a very profitable vending business. He had dreams of opening up enough baseball card shops one day to buy the New York Jets.
Gary relentlessly pursued this passion until one day his father forced him to work a dull inventory job in the basement of his family’s liquor store.
Although this looks like a cruel injustice, it was the very thing that opened up a world of opportunities for him to peruse his passion at a larger scale than he had ever conceived.
Noticing customers in the store collected wine, he saw an opportunity and applied the entrepreneurial sense he developed through baseball cards to wine. Becoming a wine expert, he eventually turned his small family shop into a sixty-million-dollar business. But was wine his “true” passion? Far from it.
Just like the baseball cards and the lemonade, wine was merely a vehicle to execute his relentless entrepreneurial passion. Gary Vaynerchuck has now taken the business skills to his digital marketing startup and is a strong advocate for loving what you do.
The lesson is to not define your passion too narrowly, since you might mistake the vehicle for the engine – in other words, don’t mistake the passion’s present exterior form for the passion itself.
The same can be said about defining your passion too broadly, since almost everyone can identify with a passion for “helping people.” The question then becomes the particular form your passion takes: how are you helping people?
Let your passion follow you, instead.
Getting your passion to follow you requires developing skills that offer as much value as possible.
Progressing on one’s path to mastery, based on one’s innate or developed strengths is the best way to achieve a passionate work-life. Passion is earned.
Vocations are not handed to the amateur, they are achieved by walking the path and doing the work. Vocations can be shape-shifters, outlets for one’s craft that don’t necessarily take on a stable or specified form.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport urges us to be like craftsmen of our skills. The craftsman mindset allows passion to serendipitously emerge through one’s work, distinct from the passion-centered mindset which fixates on a pre-existing set of ideal conditions. He gives the example of Steve Jobs’ “messy” career path, stating:
“Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.”
He became passionate in the tech business only after developing his skills in this area and walking the path to mastery.
One cannot create the spark of passion without first striking the flint. Rather than going on a passion treasure-hunt, we need to become craftsmen of our skills, as Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
To become craftsmen of our skills, we need to engage in deliberate practice and let go of the idea that it’s going to all be an eternal state of blissful contentment. As Cal states:
“Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
Giving up at the first sign of strife is a surefire way to stifle a spark of passion. Instead, kindling the spark of passion into a burning desire requires remembering that the root of the word means to suffer, and building anything of significance comes at a cost.
This advice is also useful during times of transition. Rather than having your passion depend on your social role, take your passion with you to the new role and find ways to apply your unique skills to the new situation.
Like Gary’s sequence of business ventures, your vocation can take on several different external forms. The key is that you find a way to bring your unique skills to the situation and be “so good they can’t ignore you,” as Cal Newport says. This means you must understand your strengths, understand the market, and craft your strengths to align with the market.
What I Learned Developing my Passion
Here are three things I’ve learned throughout my twenties as I developed a passion for a sociological perspective on mental health and addiction.
1. Gain insight into your strengths
I didn’t realize I was going in the wrong career direction until I started looking at my strengths and seriously listening to feedback from those around me.
My strengths are slowly processing abstract information, writing, and a strong interest in highly niche philosophical areas. Becoming an academic researcher and university professor plays to my strengths. The problem was that for most of my life I had my eyes set on a career in policing because it was a secure route with a good pension and I couldn’t think of any other career ideas at the time.
At one point I also took an office admin job that I had failed at quite miserably. With its fast-paced multitasking and lack of intellectual stimulation, I can honestly say I found it easier to do a doctorate in sociology than to work in that role. Rather than trying to fit in with what everyone else is doing or what you may be expected to do, play to your strengths, even if it results in taking a less conventional route.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key to setting yourself up for success later in life. Take a serious look at your life, beginning from your early childhood.
What types of things have you always been drawn to? What type of temperament or personality traits do you have? How can you use these to your competitive advantage?
Sit down with someone you trust to give you honest feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. The sooner you start playing to your strengths, the more time you will have to build on your competitive advantage and set yourself up for success in your thirties onward.
2. Develop a passion through specialized skills
There are no shortage of millennials trying to “find their passion.” twenty-somethings in America are enthralled by entrepreneurial pursuits that can bring meaning to their work-lives. The problem is that with this increasing level of flexibility there is also an increasing level of uncertainty.
Rather than trying to “follow your passion,” I say, “make your passion follow you.” This means knowing your strengths and putting in the work first, then your passion for that work will likely grow as you progress in the area.
As I neared the end of my doctoral degree in sociology, I discovered how relevant this advice truly is. Throughout my grad school career, I have been asked repeatedly, “what are you going to do with that degree?” To which I always replied, “the only job available for someone with this degree: research and teach in a university setting.”
As much as I would love to land a tenure-track professorship, I now recognize that my passion for writing, analytical inquiry, and strategic problem-solving are not dependent on the university context. I am now broadening my horizon by contributing to projects outside the walls of academia.
When your passion is based on your skills, losing your job can’t even take that away. Your passion will follow you so long as you put in the work.
3. Grind, hustle, and live simply
Gain the skills, knowledge, and networks that will lay a strong foundation for your career and social life. This requires a long-term mindset. Like the game of monopoly, the goal is to invest, invest, invest, and wait for the payout.
Long-term investment in yourself is made all the more difficult nowadays when bombarded with social media posts making it seem like everyone else is super rich and traveling all the time. Delayed gratification is a true virtue when laying the foundation for your future success.
My own version of self-investment was nine years of university education packed with reading, writing, and re-reading abstract sociological texts, coupled with rapidly consuming a large chunk of content coming out of the personal development genre.
Along the way I witnessed others around me rake in the cash at their “real jobs,” traveling the globe, and stocking designer wardrobes. Submitting to the process requires short-term sacrifices, but you will look back thanking yourself for laying a strong foundation for your own definition of success, rather than giving into short term monetary gains.
Stay on your path to mastery, become a craftsman of your work, and know that vocations are earned, not found. Perhaps then, instead of following your passion, your passion will start following you.
If you are interested in learning more about what it means to have a purpose, you can check out my article on the topic here: What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
Throughout thirty-five interviews with veterans of Afghanistan, I realized there are many issues facing veterans beyond PTSD. Veterans struggle to reintegrate into civilian life, resulting in transitional stress.
So what is transitional stress?
Six themes emerge from the interview data on transitional stress: missing the military; feeling lost and apathetic in civilian life; feeling cut off from an elite family; difficulty connecting with civilians; the loss of structure; and the loss of a sense of service.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these themes.
Missing the Military
Missing combat stood out as one of the most common sentiments. Although this is probably no surprise to military personnel and veterans, it is something that is completely counter-intuitive in the civilian world. In civilian-life, safety, security, and comfort are valued above all else. So how can an experience characterized by danger, uncertainty, and discomfort be missed? It’s the sense of purpose that comes with the role. One Canadian veteran states:
“I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at, but you miss the purpose that comes with the combat.”
“It’s the idea that for six months or whatever, you’re really in the shit, you’re in the thick of it, you are really doing something; you’re doing something that people are talking about, you’re doing something that’s cool, you’re doing something with your friends, it’s hard, it’s crazy, and it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life, and when you come back and your don’t have that anymore, it’s hard. It’s hard to think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again, I’m never going to be able to go back to that.’”
And another who served with the British Army states:
“I wondered whether my life would be better if I were dead than alive… I wondered whether my best days were behind me.”
The thought suicide after returning to the comforts of civilian life is a reminder of Émile Durkheim’s sociological insight in Suicide when he states:
“…those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most. Rather it is too great comfort which turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.”
Rather than blaming the harsh conditions of Afghanistan for veteran suicides, we need to look at how the culture of civilian life may actually be a major culprit.
In his memoir, Through Our Eyes, Jessie Odom states: “the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition.” Bryan Wood mirrors this sentiment in Unspoken Abandonment:
“Going from war to everyday life turned out to be much more complicated than it was for me to go from everyday life to war.”
Difficulty Connecting with Civilians
After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:
“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:
“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”
The hardships of combat are often not as traumatizing as the cultural shock when returning to civilian life because the individual in combat is protected by a highly integrated and regulated group. Tight-knit, mission-oriented, and getting regular doses of adrenaline, the combat unit produces a high degree of psychological resilience in its members. As one veteran states:
“If you’re around army guys, every civvy is a dirty, long haired, bone-idle, slack, dope smoking civvy, every one of them… he can grow his hair, he can be fuckin’ bone idle, smoke dope… perfect example of freedom, that`s for sure… he’s idle, fuck is he idle, and he’ll never be as badass as me, but shit is he free.”
This mentality is reinforced among those who transitioned into organizations that were perceived as frustrating due to their inefficiency:
“People are going from working in a high performance team to working in a B team or a C team.”
Even an individual who went into civilian policing after their deployment felt this frustration:
“Coming back to the civilian world, there was no sense of urgency here; people are slack and they are bone-idle… they are unmotivated, and they don’t know how good they’ve got it.”
He states that he was losing his mind in terms of the utter inefficiency and lack of focus in the civilian work world:
“It was absolutely horrible… I would walk out of meetings going, ‘that was two hours of god-damn time wasted.”
Several participants also described their frustrations dealing with civilians who complain about “first world problems.”
Experiencing a great deal of adversity on deployment resulted in a radical change in perspective after witnessing the contrast between the conditions in Afghanistan and the high quality of life in Canada. As a participant states:
“There are no common experiences… 99% of civilians aren’t going to see anything like what I’ve seen when overseas… part of my reason for joining the forces was so that people I cared about wouldn’t have to see those things… but seeing those things creates a barrier between me and civvies.”
This barrier was experienced by another participant who states:
“I couldn’t interact with civilians; there was no common ground…” and “Everything’s amazing here and people are still miserable… now try making friends with those people.”
“…civvy life is the easiest thing ever; my biggest problem is that when I’m on the expressway, somebody’s slow in the fuckin’ fast lane.”
The experience of adversity overseas also leads many participants to express disdain for civilians who act selfishly and entitled or unnecessarily put others in danger. One participant, in particular, described his aggressive reaction to civilians as a heightened sense of justice, distinct from his diagnosis of PTSD.
He described his reaction to drivers who put others in danger, stating that he would force them to pull over, throw them out of the car, and “teach them a life lesson.” He clarifies:
“It’s not aggression like I just want to fight or anything like that; it’s aggression towards people who are putting other people in danger.”
Being overseas and witnessing the fragility of life has contributed to this perspective. After seeing how good we have it here in Canada relative to the abject poverty and dangerous conditions in Afghanistan, individuals in Canada who unnecessarily put others at risk appeared to be ungrateful and self-centered. This unnecessary risky self-centered behavior takes our safety for granted, contrasting with the fragility of life on deployment.
Feeling Lost and Apathetic in Civilian Life
In sociological terms, the risk of suicide due to transition is called ‘anomie’. The social source of suicide risk for veterans in transition can be illuminated by Elwin Humphreys Powell’s concept of ‘anomie’ in his book, The Design of Discord. Anomie occurs when an individual is unable to derive a sense of meaning or purpose from one’s social environment. According to Powell, a central area of life where actors find purposive action is one’s work:
“Man derives his identity from his action. Action is more than motion, a mere doing things; it implies purpose, the pursuit of a goal. Without some aim beyond the moment, life becomes intolerable, meaningless”.
Keeping each other alive on deployment provides a sense of urgency and purpose that allows individuals to function effectively, despite a mission’s extremely harsh conditions. As Victor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Civilian life often fails to provide combat veterans with a ‘why’. After witnessing the profound tragedy of life in Afghanistan and experiencing a high degree of purpose-driven action, our way of life in the West can seem frivolous and dull. This is why we not only need programs for psychological traumas such as PTSD, but for reintegration traumas as well. Sebastian Junger illustrates this issue in War, stating:
“They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.”
This “remaking” leads to issues with identity upon transition to civilian life.
My research indicates that feeling lost and apathetic in civilian life is directly tied to the identity disruption during the transition to civilian life. As a participant states:
“You don’t have an answer for who you are, you’re just kind of a lost soul….”
Another describes the experience as the following:
“My transition has been nothing short of brutal. I’m trying to find my place now; who am I? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do now? I have been seriously struggling with transition.”
This same participant went on to describe the military’s moral milieu in terms of providing a “psychological paycheck”:
“You get two paychecks in the military: you get your pay monetarily, but you also get paid psychologically in the military… a sense of purpose, focus, comradery, mission, and all those kinds of things… but when you leave the military often times they take away both of those paychecks, or at least one of them; they take the psychological pay.”
Besides the loss of “psychological pay” provided by the moral solidarity of the combat unit, the high level of responsibility provided by the role also contributes to feeling lost due to an inability to find meaning in civilian life. As a participant states: “I feel like that was the pinnacle of my life, for good and bad, and now you’re supposed to find something else and find new meaning?”
Feeling Cut Off From An Elite Family
In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:
“The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.”
A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:
“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”
Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart. Units train together, deploy together, and should come home together.
Coming back to one’s civilian family means leaving one’s military family, causing potential problems due to this loss. Individuals I interviewed who had particularly difficult experiences coming to terms with the loss of their military family were those who were injured and forced to leave their unit.
One individual describes the military in terms of an elite family characterized by a sense of invincibility. Getting injured, “you get cut off from the family,” this individual states. He felt shunned because he felt his injuries reminded others of their lack of invincibility.
This individual was not nearly as distressed by the pain of his physical injury as he was by the loss of the military family – a by-product of the physical injury. This individual experienced suicidal ideation after this traumatic loss and feeling shunned by his military family.
The elite mentality in the military of “being better than everyone else” – as one participant characterized it – creates a heightened sense of loss when one is injured and forced to leave. Another participant corroborates this sentiment in the statement:
“…when you’re in the military, you really believe you’re part of the high end of society… you feel like you’re somehow better.”
This sentiment is prevalent and it is based on the fact that the military is a high performing organization and its members are in peak athletic condition. This participant went on to state:
“I would compare the structure of the military to an F-1 [race car] in comparison to the company I am at now.”
The Loss of Structure
The regimented military structure encourages a strong sense of collective responsibility and accountability among service members, as discussed in the section on military communal altruism. Coming into civilian life, individuals are forced to quickly adjust to individualized responsibility and accountability:
“Now I just have to be accountable to myself, and that’s a problem.”
Intensive indoctrination into the military and experiences on deployment resocialized serving members to internalize the collective accountability of the military making the shift to individualized responsibility and purpose difficult:
You don’t have that military conscience on your shoulder anymore telling you what you should and shouldn’t do… the military is like your parents, you’re taught a certain way how to behave, how to look, how to react to things, and you’re basically a lamb thrown to the lions when you’re on your own.
The high degree of structured behavior in combat is necessitated by the risk of death. Military members on deployment exist in a constant state of anxious anticipation, are very reliant on their compatriots, and behave according to strict codes of conduct. When in civilian life, Veterans need to adjust to the relative lack of urgency, individualized responsibility, and loosely structured organizational behavior. A participant states:
“Everything is so black and white and clearly defined when you’re in the military that there’s really no room for misinterpretations… when you do something wrong, you get jacked up hard, you may even get charged… in the civilian world things are subject to interpretation and you can do things your own way, so long as you get it done…Sometimes it seems like there’s no accountability… like “oh, something got missed; oh well, we’ll get it next time,” and to me that’s like ‘what? Get it next time? Coming from an environment where sometimes there is no next time, you don’t get a second chance, you do this right or that’s it, somebody fucking dies.
Transitioning into a banking position, another participant states:
“When you pass the ball, you expect somebody to be there… there’s no real accountability, no real responsibility.”
The relative lack of clearly structured accountability and responsibility in civilian life contributes to the anomic conditions of the transition.
The military’s organizational need for its members to quickly build strong bonds of trust and intimacy is a key distinction between military and civilian organizations. A participant states:
“The bond is very strong between service-people and there’s a lot of importance placed on relationships… as soon as you join a team everybody will intuitively connect as much and as fast as they can with people around them, and that would actually freak out my civilian counterparts.”
For another participant, this was the major distinction between his experience at the Royal Military College and his experience in law school:
[At the] Royal Military College you were accountable for everything you did, you were part of the team… then you go to law school, you’re not really part of anything, you’re just a number. On one hand the freedom was good, on the other, the freedom was overwhelming as well.
The overwhelming nature of this relative freedom in the individualistic context of civilian life is the individual manifestation of anomie. This individual goes on to describe the experience of law school as “being alone” despite being in a large group, whereas in the military, “you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.
The structure provided by the military gave individuals a sense of security and resilience unparalleled in civilian life. One participant actually states:
“I found it safer there than I do sometimes here.”
In the military, there is a contingency plan for everything, but in civilian life, there is no such collective plan regulating one’s sense of security:
“We don’t have a contingency plan for bar fights… over there you just knew what to do… there was a feeling of invincibility with certain people around.”
Leaving a context where collective regulations organize every aspect of life results in a disorienting lack of structure. This same individual went on to say:
“I found it easier to think on my feet for eight guys than it is to organize my day-to-day here.”
When coming back onto the base after deployment, he maintained the sense of collectivity with many of the people he served with, but moving back to his home-city across the country posed a great deal of difficulty:
“despite the fact that I had a close family, I did not have my brothers in arms, the guys I served with, the guys who knew me, and we all knew each other so well.”
After moving he states:
“not having that balance of people I could lean on here, things got worse; my drug-use escalated.”
Suicidal ideation became an issue during this period of transition back to his home-city. This participant was able to gain respite from suicidal ideation during contracts where he was hired to assist fellow Veterans during the transition by sharing his personal experience.
This experience of working for the military during these contracts provided structure to his life and allowed him to regain a sense of purpose through serving his fellow transitioning service-members.
The Loss of a Sense of Service
One of my interview participants states, “I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was.” Leaving a specialized role that provided a high degree of individual significance and direction through a communal purpose, “you go from a hero to a zero…” as another veteran said. In his memoir, Through Our Eyes, Jessie Odom states:
“the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition… I know the changes I see in myself are not a result of the war in Iraq. Even though those memories are still there and are traumatic, it goes much deeper than that. The changes are the result of a man who wishes he was at war.”
This same sentiment is again illustrated by Sebastian Junger :
“Collective defense can be so compelling — so addictive, in fact — that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place. I think almost every man at Restrepo [the combat outpost] secretly hoped the enemy would make a serious try at overrunning the place before the deployment came to an end. It was everyone’s worst nightmare but also the thing they hoped for most, some ultimate demonstration of the bond and fighting ability of the men. For sure there were guys who re-upped because something like that hadn’t happened yet. After the men got back to Vicenza, I asked Bobby Wilson if he missed Restrepo at all. “I’d take a helicopter there tomorrow,” he said. Then, leaning in, a little softer: “Most of us would.”
He goes on to say:
…throughout history, men… [at war] have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives… they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.
O’Byrne, a marine at Restrepo, states:
“It’s as if I’m self-destructive, trying to find the hardest thing possible to make me feel accomplished…”
For these men, combat provides a heightened sense of meaning in common action, or perhaps what Durkheim calls ‘collective effervescence’.
Karl Marlantes, In his memoir titled What it is Like to Go to War, states that self-destructive behaviors, including suicides, are the result of a veterans’ inability to make sense of their chaotic experience upon return to civilian life. He states that simply expecting veterans to ‘adjust’ to civilian life is not enough. He writes, “adjustment is akin to asking Saint John of the cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.” Marlantes argues that the spiritual component of combat must be recognized in order to prevent meaningless suffering in veterans.
Rather than treating individual psychological ailments as individual problems, we need to look at how social and cultural forces produce suicidal thoughts or behavior in this veteran population. Sociologically speaking, we need to consider the profound effects of ‘anomie’ in transitioning veteran populations.
Used by Émile Durkheim to describe a society lacking moral regulation, anomic society lacks the moral signposts that guide individuals throughout their life-course, leaving them without direction to pursue collective goals.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, Durkheim observed the diminishing role of public morality in Western capitalist societies. Individual aspirations were no longer tightly regulated by traditional beliefs, and they were set free in the limitless pursuit of wealth.
Throughout the 20th-century market capitalism grew to a point where consumer culture added the imperative to consume. This cycle of limitless production and consumption reminds me of the Metric lyric: “Buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car.”
With all of our basic survival needs more than accounted for in the West, the pursuit of wealth became the central guiding sign-post in our lives. This was problematic for Durkheim since it left many lives in moral upheaval, driving new urbanites to commit suicide.
Although anomie is sufficiently normalized in Western society today and no longer harmful to the average individual, military veterans often experience this same sense of moral culture shock in their transition to civilian life.
In his book, Suicide, Durkheim says anomie is a problem because it leaves individuals in a perpetual state of emptiness. Free from the yolk of tradition, our desires are limitless, producing a perpetual state of unhappiness:
“Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture… since this race for an unattainable goal can give no other pleasure but that of the race itself, it is one, once it is interrupted the participants are left empty-handed.”
Interrupted by existential shock in the reality of war, veterans often come back unable to find pleasure in the civilian rat-race. Having experienced life or death decision-making and the necessity of clear focused attention, civilian life appears loose and actions appear inconsequential. In War, Sebastion Junger writes:
In the civilian world almost nothing has lasting consequences, so you can blunder through life in a kind of daze. You never have to take inventory of the things in your possession and you never have to calculate the ways in which mundane circumstances can play out — can, in fact, kill you. As a result, you lose a sense of the importance of things, the gravity of things.
A sense of service is another major factor contributing to moral purpose amongst service-members. A sense of serving in the military provides a high degree of moral purpose, leaving individuals vulnerable to the feeling of apathy and lacking direction in civilian life. As a veteran states:
“We want to serve, that’s our mantra… a lot of guys will join the paramedics, police, or fire-department, because they want to be in that position of service to other people… that’s who we are.”
By adding, “that’s who we are,” this individual points to the importance of maintaining a social identity based on service. Veterans gained a great deal of their social identity and moral purpose from serving in the military and therefore require the opportunity to continue serving once they return to civilian life. Coming out of the military, as one participant states:
You lose the sense that you are serving your country. Serving your country tends to be an undervalued activity, but it is one that Veterans have embraced. Unlike any other profession, they put their life on the line. What they are looking for is something like what they just left, and that doesn’t exist anymore, so that’s why so many people don’t actually leave the military; they go to the reserves or they go into organizations that deliver projects to the military or they go on as trainers.
This individual states that his stepson, who also served in the Canadian Forces, valued service. He said that although his stepson embraced the consumerist and self-serving values of his generation – making a lot of money in the banking industry – his heart was in public service and he spent a great deal of his spare time serving his military reserve unit. Another subject who struggled to regain a sense of moral purpose through service in civilian life states:
I wait every day for a car accident… I think ‘can somebody please flip your car so I can save your life…’ I’m looking for a rush, I’m looking for a reason to help people, I want near-deadly experiences, I want an apocalypse of this world, I want everything to go bad, I want you all to fucking need me to fucking save your life.
This is the extreme end of frustration caused by missing the sense of purpose that comes through service.
Service also builds a sense of moral purpose through contribution. Coming home and losing the moral community one served creates the need to regain a sense of contribution. As one Veteran states:
“…no one tells us, ‘hey, you’re still worthy of making a contribution.’”
Facilitating social environments that give Veterans the opportunity to apply their skills in civilian professions allows them to potentially regain a sense of service. Another participant has a positive work experience regaining a sense of serving a team at a tech start-up, stating:
“I work really long hours… but that’s our commitment, that’s our dedication, and I find meaning out of that… working with a bunch of people that are motivated, driven, and ambitious, that’s what I had in Afghanistan.”
He goes on to say:
“Now, if I make the wrong decision, the whole company fails, and that sort of level of responsibility is awesome… my decisions, my actions have a bigger impact than they would at a larger organization.”
This individual was able to regain a sense of service in the private sector, regaining purpose by applying his leadership skills to serve the team.
The relative lack of moral regulation in civilian life can leave veterans disoriented. The fact that anomie has been normalized in the West creates a general environment of decadence, where the pursuit of wealth/ the consumption of goods seems like the only game in town.
Having faced one’s mortality surrounded by a tight-knit mission-oriented group, the production/ consumption game loses its luster, appearing meaningless. In order to prevent suicidal ideation in individuals whose lives have lost meaning during the transition to the civilian world, veteran programs need to consider the important existential component to civilian transition.
Solutions may include veterans groups focused on the pursuit of a common purpose such as Team Rubicon, Squadbay, expeditions with Canada’s True Patriot Love Organization, or peer-support groups provided by Canada’s Veterans Transition Network, and Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program. Missing combat is a symptom of anomie.
For most veterans it is manageable and they are able to move on, finding meaning in civilian occupations. For others, it is the most difficult thing they may face. Recognizing this reality is the first step to understanding the types of interventions we need to consider in order to combat the problem of life after combat.
Although it is beneficial to treat individuals who suffer psychological traumas on an individual basis, we need to consider social traumas not currently being addressed by this popular form of treatment. As Jessie Odom states in, Through Our Eyes:
“the story does not end on the battlefield. For most, the story has just begun.”
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
Is social media this generation’s heroin? Are we raising a generation of social media junkies, dropping in and out of the “real world,” always chasing that next like-button high?
I’ve dug into the research to answer the question of why we are addicted to likes on social media, and this is what I’ve found:
Likes on social media are addictive because they affect your brain, similar to taking chemical substances. Likes symbolize a gain in reputation, causing you to constantly compare yourself to your peers.
Let’s look at the research in more depth.
Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
What’s Happening In Your Brain?
Although it seems harmless, recent evidence suggests that social media use activates the same reward centers in the brain triggered by addictions to chemical compounds.
Even though we are not consuming a chemical, compulsive social media use can be classified as an addiction. So if social media use can be classified as an addiction, what does it do to your brain?
Recent neurological research points to the importance of the brain’s reward-circuit. Meshi et al. (2013) used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens; the brains pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry:
“…reward-related activity in the left nucleus accumbens predicts Facebook use.”
Also, they found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.
According to Polk (2015), addiction fundamentally results from a prediction error in the brain. When the nucleus accumbens is stimulated beyond an expectation, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) releases dopamine, encouraging learning, as held by the Rescorla-Wagner model. Polk emphasizes the role of dopamine as a neurotransmitter associated with craving and reward expectation, putting individuals at risk of compulsive behaviors when reencountering a trigger associated with the potential reward.
This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content.
Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA.
Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation.
This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies, even at the peril of our safety and the safety of others while driving.
Recent legislation banning the use of hand-held technologies while operating a motor vehicle is a response to this increasingly prevalent addiction.
The impact of Addictive behaviors on the brain reflects changing attitudes toward addiction.
Addictions were once considered a moral issue based on the weak-will of the user. Then, addictions became classified as a disease under the medical model. More recently, addictions are often viewed as an ineffective way to cope with unmet life needs.
This humanistic approach is supported by the evidence explaining how social media and heroin have more in common than we might expect. As Adam Curtis states in an interview with the New York Times:
“On a social-media network, it’s very much like being in a heroin bubble. As a radical artist in the 1970s, you used to go and take heroin and wander through the chaos and the collapsing Lower East Side, and you felt safe. That’s very like now. You know you aren’t safe, but you feel safe because everyone is like you. But you don’t have to take heroin, so it’s brilliant. You don’t get addicted, or maybe you do. Mostly you do.”
A recent study on heroin use argues that everything we know about addiction is wrong. The main findings demonstrate that individuals were not abusing substances because they were chemically hooked; they are abusing substances because of a deeper underlying issue; they lack a sense of social belonging and connection.
This is why it is relatively easy for a socially connected individual to stop using painkillers after an operation when compared to individuals who are dealing with deeper issues such as social isolation.
But if Facebook is a social media platform, does it solve our underlying connection problem, or does it make it worse?
Does Social Media Isolate Us?
It depends on how you use it.
Facebook’s mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But is social media actually bringing us together?
As a sociologist, I took a look at the research. Here is what I found:
Social media use is correlated with depression and low well-being. Yes, this conclusion itself sounds depressing, but let’s take a look at the data.
A 2016 study surveyed 1787 19-32-year-old men and women, finding social media use was “was significantly associated with increased depression.”
Another 2016 study found the following:
“Taking a break from Facebook has positive effects on the two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive.”
Internet use is correlated with decreased loneliness among older adults. So it’s more complicated than the above studies might suggest.
According to this 2015 study looking at individuals 65 and older:
“Higher levels of Internet use were significant predictors of higher levels of social support, reduced loneliness, and better life satisfaction and psychological well-being among older adults.”
How you use social media makes a difference. According to another 2016 study on the correlation between Facebook and well-being, the researchers found:
“Specific uses of the site were associated with improvements in well-being.”
So what made the difference?
Individuals who used Facebook to build relationships with strong ties received the benefits, while those who used it for wide broadcasting did not. Therefore, they concluded the following:
“People derive benefits from online communication, as long it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them.”
Another 2016 study found the same for Instagram:
“Instagram interaction and Instagram browsing were both related to lower loneliness, whereas Instagram broadcasting was associated with higher loneliness.”
Antisocial uses of social media can be addictive. As described above, neurological research used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry.
The researchers found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.
This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content.
Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA.
Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation. This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies.
Social Media does not necessarily make us more ‘social.’ It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-workers when abused as an addiction, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our carefully curated online identities, constantly seeking out more ‘likes’ to validate our self-worth.
Although social media can isolate us through voyeurism and identity-construction associated with social comparison and reputational enhancement, this is not the full story.
There are many non-addictive ways social media can be used.
Social media can be social when used in social ways. It can bring together international families grieving the loss of a loved one, connect soldiers in combat with their families back home, rekindle long-lost friendships, or as Facebook itself says:
“…help you connect and share with the people in your life.”
Social media is social when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us.
Facebook is a social media platform, but that does not necessarily mean it makes us more social. It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-works when overused.
In her recent book, IGen, Jean Twenge writes about the generation born after 1994, finding high rates of mental health issues and isolation:
“A stunning 31% more 8th and 10th graders felt lonely in 2015 than in 2011, along with 22% more 12th graders”…[.] All in all, iGen’ers are increasingly disconnected from human relationships.
She argues the increasing level of screen-time and decreasing level of in-person interaction leaves Igen lacking social skills:
“In the next decade we may see more young people who know just the right emoji for a situation—but not the right facial expression.”
This lack of in-person interaction leaves Igen vulnerable to mental health issues:
“iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades. On the surface, though, everything is fine.”
This idea that everything is fine on the surface comes from the need to present an ideal version of oneself online:
“…social media is not real life. Her photos, which looked like casual snaps, actually took several hours to set up and up to a hundred attempts to get right…”
Social media platforms encourage rampant voyeurism, drawing us into someone else’s constructed world, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our own carefully curated online identities for others to see.
Our friend-lists are paper-trails of past acquaintances, giving us a little window to voyeuristically peer into their lives, casually connect, or rekindle a friendship.
Paradoxically, we can feel alone in a sea of social media connections. Like Riesman’s (2001) “lonely crowd,” we are perpetually other-directed, scanning, and finger-scrolling screens, searching for a kind of stimulation that never seems to fulfill our sense that we are good enough.
How Social Media Affects Self-Esteem
Picturesque portraits in Machu Picchu, selfies in the sand in Santorini, engagements, children, and new homes remind us of how we always seem to be missing out on life’s milestones and adventures. We curate our online identities, attempting to live up to an impossible standard, ever-more concerned with our digital reputation.
According to a Pew Research report on Teens, Social Media & Technology, they report the following experience of a 15-year-old girl:
“It provides a fake image of someone’s life. It sometimes makes me feel that their life is perfect when it is not.”
This perfectionism is amplified by new technology on social media platforms that automatically edit your photos. Dr. Hamlet, from the Child Mind Institute, states the following:
“…there’s a so-called “pretty filter” on Instagram and Snapchat. Beautifying filters are used almost reflexively by many, which means that girls are getting used to seeing their peers effectively airbrushed every single day online. There are also image altering apps that teens can download for more substantial changes. Facetune is one popular one, but there are many, and they can be used to do everything from erase pimples to change the structure of your face or make you look taller.”
Rae Jacobson, from the Child Mind Institute, presents the experience of a young woman in the following passage:
“Look,” says Sasha, a 16-year-old junior in high school, scrolling slowly through her Instagram feed. “See: pretty coffee, pretty girl, cute cat, beach trip. It’s all like that. Everyone looks like they’re having the best day ever, all the time.”
The article goes on to describe the problem with this perfectionism is negative social comparison:
“Kids view social media through the lens of their own lives,” says Dr. Emanuele. “If they’re struggling to stay on top of things or suffering from low self-esteem, they’re more likely to interpret images of peers having fun as confirmation that they’re doing badly compared to their friends.”
The negative emotion produced by this social comparison can result in an attempt to bolster one’s low self-esteem by attempting to gain more likes on their own photos.
The problem with this short-term solution is that it creates long term problems, like any other addiction. Rae Jacobson goes on to state:
Teens who have created idealized online personas may feel frustrated and depressed at the gap between who they pretend to be online and who they truly are.
Social media is addictive because pretending to be someone else online further reinforces the idea that you are not enough. Receiving several likes is a temporary solution, but genuine self-esteem suffers in the long run.
As selfies gain popularity on Instagram, the research findings from a 2017 study on the topic reveal some important lessons. Here are the highlights:
• Selfie viewing was negatively associated with self-esteem.
• Groupie viewing was positively associated with self-esteem.
• Frequent groupie viewing led to increased life satisfaction.
• Frequent selfie viewing led to decreased life satisfaction.
• Need for popularity moderated the relationship between selfie viewing and self-esteem.
• Need for popularity moderated the relationship between selfie viewing and life satisfaction.
In our selfie-obsessed Instagram culture, findings like this are important to consider. Mindlessly scrolling through Instagram selfies may be affecting us more than we think.
What Makes New Social Media Different?
I grew up in the era of MSN messenger, chat rooms, message boards, and MySpace. I remember feeling heavily drawn to connecting with my friends online, often communicating more online than in person. But these online social platforms are fundamentally different from today’s platforms.
Today’s social platforms are more than a neutral space to communicate with friends. They are miniature broadcasting platforms.
I still remember a time before the Facebook ‘like’ button. The button was introduced in 2009 and made the platform more than simply about commenting and sharing. In 2016, the ‘reactions’ button came out, further allowing users to share their emotional reactions to your content.
The ‘like’ button amplified the social comparison potential. In an article featuring an interview with Dr. Max Blumburg, be states:
“…you’re making yourself vulnerable to the thoughts of others, so it’s not surprising that if it doesn’t elicit the reaction you’d hoped for your pride takes a hit. We’re seeking approval from our peers and it’s not nice when we don’t get it – you want people to think your ‘content’ is funny/interesting/likeable. ‘If you have low self-esteem and you don’t do well on social media, you’re going to feel particularly bad.
We are all miniature media companies, in a sense. The responsibility to manage one’s reputation online has skyrocketed since the development of these advanced technologies.
The thought of having a career as a social media celebrity was unthinkable not too long ago. Now, social media influencers are a key aspect of mainstream marketing.
We’re all having to become our own marketers online. This is something I think about quite a bit, given the fact that I created this website for the purpose of sharing my ideas in a non-traditional way.
Although you can use social media to further your professional career and build connections with like-minded people, it is important to be mindful of when it is having a negative impact on your life.
If you suspect your internet use may be having a negative impact, you can try the free Internet Addiction Test here.
Controlling Your Social Media Use
As described throughout this article, social media can be an addiction, like any other substance. For those struggling with an addiction to social media, you are not alone.
This is a very common issue that can be treated through self-help activities, psychological treatments, counseling, support groups, in addition to writing and introspection.
If you are simply looking to prevent any issues, it could be helpful to be mindful of the way you are relating to social media. If you find you are constantly seeking likes and validation, perhaps taking a break might help you clear your head.
Finding hobbies or new activities to engage in could help build your sense of self, in addition to building an in-person peer group.
If you decide to return to social media use, it is important to set limits on how long you intend to spend on it, how often you intend to check it, and considering whether or not you are using it in a meaningful way to connect.
It could also be helpful to turn off your push-notifications, so you are not getting constant beeps or buzzes.
If you are still having difficulties, treatment may also be helpful. Internet addiction is becoming increasingly recognized and can now be formally diagnosed in the DSM.
Treatment looks different for each individual, based on their unique experiences. Based on my research into evidence for psychotherapeutic treatments, Cogitative-behavioral approaches seem to have the highest level of evidence supporting their effectiveness.
Although this is the case, non-therapeutic factors such as therapist-patient relationship and therapist empathy are also correlated with effective treatment.
If you are seeking treatment for internet addiction, talk to your health care provider about coverage. In my home province of Ontario, these services are offered free of charge, including residential treatment programs, due to their association with government-funded problem gambling treatment services. Although this may greatly vary between jurisdictions, it is still worth looking into.
Social media can be beneficial when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us. For example, the studies on the social media habits of the elderly demonstrate this lesson. Using social media in a balanced way to meaningfully connect with persons in your life can help relieve social isolation.
Unfortunately, social media is quickly becoming one of the strongest forces that divide us. We are drawn into the race for likes, competing with our followers, constantly comparing ourselves to an artificial ideal. We need to be conscious of how we use social media platforms so they can bring us together rather than divide us.
Getting rid of social media altogether is not the solution. The problem is not social media itself, but rather, the way we use social media.
Consider the place of social media in your own life. Is it acting as an opiate, numbing you to underlying issues? Or is it helping you stay connected to those who mean the most to you? Feel free to share your experience below.