Dr Suzy Green, Muse Positive Psychology Expert, discusses what ‘success’ really means.
Have you ever stopped to seriously consider your definition of success? Not a cursory nod in agreement with an image often linked to success, but an active declaration of what it means to you? I find that many people have never really questioned their beliefs about success or what makes for a successful life. And I would argue that this lack of questioning and/or challenging our assumptions undermines living a good, flourishing life.
When we hear or use the term ‘success’, we so often think of the great Australian dream – the house, the car, three kids, dog and boat (if you’re lucky). In the Western world, ‘success’ also often inherits a school or university emblem (did you go to the ‘right’ one?), a job title or career ambition and a postal address, because postcodes speak volumes (not to mention which car company’s sending you mail and whether you’re Mrs or Ms). While there’s nothing wrong with that dream – and indeed for some people it is synonymous with ‘success’ – it’s important to resist assuming its universal facticity. Success, like happiness, is different strokes for different folks.
As adults, we have a duty to ourselves but also to the next generation, as a kind of preventative action.
Thankfully there is something of a stereotype backlash putting prescribed definitions of success on ice. This uprising of conscientious ‘definers of success’ are demonstrating that we can have a life that may look very different from the traditional successful life, and still feel (and indeed, ‘be’) successful.
In reclaiming our power over the term ‘success’, it’s crucial to question not only the definition of success but the nature of that success. While it sounds counterintuitive, imagining success to be an ‘outcome’ can be problematic according to research. While ‘goal attainment’ seems to be the point of the daily grind, actually reaching the long-coveted destination is so often disappointing (in contrast to the fireworks we’d justly expect as reward for the slog). The thing is, there is often a rude reality check soon after the champagne bottle’s empty or the first mortgage repayment statement comes, because the new and exciting so quickly becomes the new normal. In other words, we habituate quickly to our new circumstances and, in pursuit of reward and feeling ‘successful’, set a new goal and start the process all over again!
On the other hand, the ‘journey as destination’ credo is gaining ground as science reveals the value of ‘goal striving’ (rather than goal attainment) to wellbeing. The effect is particularly potent when goals are personally meaningful and our actions align with our values. Which is where it all gets very personal. And there is nothing wrong with not feeling giddy at the thought of doing medicine or law or working for the Big Four. In fact, in a classic psychological article titled The Dark Side of the American Dream, the authors found that seeking fame and fortune undermines wellbeing – unless we’re using that same fame and fortune to do good in the world. (There are plenty of people who appear ‘successful’ who are effectively at war with themselves, dulling the dissonance with substances and destructive relationships).
While we can all benefit from this conscious reckoning at any life stage, it’s particularly important for young people, whose decisions – and ultimately lifetime wellbeing – may be guided by their parents’ or society’s beliefs about success. Anxiety and depression are not unrelated to expectations. As adults, we have a duty to ourselves but also to the next generation, as a kind of preventative action. Raising a generation that grows up imagining success as democratic, creatively exploring and making meaning rather than feeling compelled to keep up with the Joneses – at school, in appearance and on the career and family ladders – would be a great achievement.
If you’re ready to shake up old beliefs and assumptions and are wondering where to start, begin with the question, ‘what matters most to me?’. As Helen Keller once said “What I’m looking for is not out there, it is in me”.