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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.
Table of Contents
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.