Why our pursuit of success is killing our happiness?

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Success is one of the most used words and what it means may differ for each of us. However, Is there a generic definition of success which we all can agree to? I think there is but it requires a closer understanding of our motivations. We are all goal oriented in nature by this I mean that we spend a lot of time motivated by & acting towards something which is in the future i.e. a goal, a situation or time. At any given point, we could have many goals that we want to achieve, but only a few of them qualify to be extremely important to us. So, when we say ‘I am trying to be successful’ then it just means that we are trying to reach a better future state by achieving those goals which we consider important.

Success merely the act of reaching a future state that is important to us.

When we are after ‘success’, the underlying assumption or rather a belief is that achieving success leads to greater happiness. It is indeed true for most of the goals that we try to achieve, but experience has shown that some goals make us happier than others. So naturally, one of our aims is to look for and pursue goals that maximise our happiness.

These prioritised goals can be anything – Staying fit and healthy, becoming productive at work or to do good to society to name just a few. However, given the capitalist world we live in, the majority of us have defined our success around making a lot of money. So, today’s overwhelming definition of success is to become rich and if possible famous too. Given the perks, it is but natural to feel the need to have abundant wealth as it helps to gain respect and hopefully create the freedom to do what we love to do.

For the past decade, I have done exactly this – make an effort to create financial wealth but all along I was curious to assess how it impacts my happiness. I had a fairly successful career and loved certain aspects of the work that I did, but for the most part, I did live dreading Monday mornings and waiting for Friday evenings. I saw this behaviour in hundreds of great colleagues I had worked with across several multi-national companies. It is likely that you are in the same boat as well. If not, lucky you – you could skip the rest of the article.

While my designations across companies changed from one to other, I have always been an analyst during my 13-year stint. During this time I have analysed the implications of a pursuit of wealth on my happiness. While most of us already know what we need to do to be happy, we struggle to take action, and I was no exception. It was only after my persistent questioning of every aspect that it became clear as to why what I was doing has limited potential to increase my happiness. In this article, I argue as to why it is impossible to increase our happiness via such a career path even if we become rich and wealthy.

Limitation of the today’s Success

Having a goal to create ‘abundant wealth’ is like trying to fill a bottomless pit. Regardless of our current state in life, however good it may be, the goal to ‘make more money’ can be a never ending one. More we accumulate, more we want. It is not because money is evil but rather because of our attitude we have towards everything in life. Take for example an area that is important to us, and it is only natural that we seek ways to improve that particular area further. So if money and wealth are important to us, it is natural that we seek more of it. This is human nature.

The Goal of creating ‘abundant wealth’ is like trying to fill a bottomless pit.

But what’s the problem with investing the significant time of our lives creating an abundance of wealth? Sure, our perpetual wealth creation exercise can certainly make us feel better about ourselves for various reasons, but without a clear & strong intended purpose, the feeling of joy from it can be fleeting and momentary. And, like any other experience, more wealth we accumulate, more fleeting this feeling gets. There is a huge risk that all the hard work we put in to create this wealth becomes a meaningless pursuit. So, at the least, it is critical that we have a purpose for every penny we accumulate and ensure that the wealth we create fulfils its purpose.

Having said that, whether we have a purpose or not, typical means we employ to create wealth and means we employ to spend it, greatly limits our happiness. Why and How? Well, to understand, we need to know how we achieve most of our happiness in the first place.

The Source of our Happiness

This question requires an article on its own, but for the sake of sanity, I will narrow it down. In short, Happiness is a positive state of mind, and hence it is a function of what we think. However, what we think is heavily dependent on the people we interact with and the actions we take. So essentially happiness stems from actions that we take with (or without the people we interact with). The actions that we engage in could have varied purposes, but the end goal of these actions can be to meet one or more of the following needs.

Happiness is a positive state of mind heavily dependent on the actions we take and the people we interact with.

Joy & Pleasure – The actions we take for pleasure are those which give us lot of joy. It enables us to be in the present moment and forget our worries of the past or anxiety of the future. These could be activities like eating tasty food, listening to music, watching or playing sports and travelling to name a few.

Knowledge & Growth – This is the action we take that enable us to better ourselves or our situation on an ongoing basis. These actions could be tough or painful at times, but the desire to reach the goal keep us motivated through the struggle. Any action which enables us to grow – be it physical, psychological, spiritual or material can be grouped under this. Our drive to earn more and more money is an example of this need. So certainly, the money we are accumulating regardless of how we use it, is indeed making us happy.

Love & Contribution – This is the action we undertake to make a positive change to others and the world around us. This can be as small as showing & receiving care and compassion to and from family & friends members to making an impact to others we care about. When I say Contribution, it includes any action we undertake to help others which include family, friends, colleagues, customers and even strangers. Our contribution to at our work results in we getting paid and appreciated.

So, for a balanced, happy life, we need a good mix of actions which enable us to meet all of the above needs. An imbalance in any of these needs over a longer period will result in dissatisfaction & reduced happiness and this in extreme cases could lead to depression & suicide.

The Big Constraint

Does our current definition of success help us maximise meeting the above needs? It all depends on what actions you take every day. However, the actions that we take are limited by a big constraint – Time i.e. the hours in a day that we have. So, regardless of who you are – rich or poor, beggar or a billionaire, there is no escaping the 24 hour day on this planet. We spend around half of it in meeting our survival needs – i.e. ensuring and having air, water, food and rest or sleep that we need every day. This leaves us with around 14-12 hours of waking time every day to engage in different actions to meet the three needs and increase our happiness.

Regardless of who you are – rich or poor, beggar or a billionaire, there is no escaping the 24 hour day on this planet.

The biggest chunk of this waking time is eaten up by the work we do. Of what is left, big part tends to be dedicated towards our daily and weekly chores, supporting the family and de-stressing ourselves through entertainment. What we are left with after this is not much to talk about. So, there is no easy way out, but we need to explore the problem closer to understand where to look for answers.

Where is the Problem?

Most of us accept that happiness is the ultimate goal of life. However, this capitalist world makes us believe that becoming rich is the best way to get there. This idea gets planted in our head by the society as it talks up the value of having money and wealth much more than the value of being happy. It also glorifies people who are rich and projects them as role models.

Our society talks up the value of having money and wealth much more than the value of being happy

If there were a good correlation between becoming rich and happiness, then this is the right approach to take. But time and again it has been proved that happiness and wealth have no direct co-relation. If there was one, how would it explain that a monk is the happiest person on the planet when we have so many billionaires? In fact, we can see many happy people have no wealth, and a good number of well-off people are dissatisfied & still searching for meaning in life. This makes it clear to me that happiness stems from what we what we do and not what we have.

We go after becoming rich because of the access, freedom & respect it offers. If we are not lucky to have a rich dad, the only pathway to wealth is by engaging in work or business that makes us lot of money. This clear goal limits the type of work or business we can engage in and thereby limiting our freedom to do what we love.

The works we take on typically consume most of the waking time and hence there is not much time left to do anything else. Hence, our work has to be our primary source to an increasingly happier life. This means that we need love good part of what we do at work which could be the work itself or the people it impacts.

For our work to sustain & grow our happiness, it has to add more to our soul than to our bank account. So, we need to engage in work which not only pays our bills but also should give us either immense joy of performing it and or add meaning to our lives. Hence making a lot of money should never be the primary criteria for the job.

Happiness stems from what we do and not what we have. Hence, our career & the work we do has to be our primary source of happiness where it has to add more to our soul than to our bank account.

However, since most of us decide our field of work mainly based on how big the paycheck is, we exclude those opportunities which may pay lesser but help us get a better sense of satisfaction & fulfilment. And given our priorities, we will continue to naturally choose work which makes the paycheck progressively fatter but in the process, more likely that we will be choosing a more stressful work and reduce whatever joy that is left in life.

The big problem is that once you begin the journey of ‘making more money’, it is like entering a one-way street with little option to look back. This is because we get used to everything that money brings – the access, respect and the freedom to buy what we want and find it hard to let go any of it.

Hence, it is no wonder that only a few limited people, who identify the problem with such a goal and struggle to accept it, end up switching goals and paths for the better. Most of the others either learn to accept this reality or keep a fading hope to follow one fine day. This is when we start living from weekend to weekend, counting and surviving the five days in between.

The journey of “making more money” is like a one way street with little option to look back. This is because we get used to everything that money brings – the access, respect and the freedom to buy what we want and find it hard to let go any of it.

Hence, it is best to choose the best career path up front based on what brings you most joy rather than thinking about it later. I and most others I have seen are examples of how difficult it is to change it later. I was lucky to have come out of it but most others won’t be so lucky.

For those of us who have already entrenched in a career path which is not helping our sense of satisfaction, there are ways to change your situation. The easiest step we can take is to find out aspects of work we enjoy the most and increase its quotient. While changing jobs or roles, evaluate both the pay raise and how your work it will affect your everyday sense of joy and how much stress does it add to your life. How you can go about it requires another write-up, and I will keep it for another day.

So what is the takeaway?

We all know and acknowledge that what we need is happiness and given the time constraint of a day that we all have, our ‘work’ plays a dominant role in our happiness. However, as we are obsessed with the material success, we end up choosing paths which limit our happiness & reduce our freedom. Once we choose & set out on a certain career path, it becomes very difficult to change it later in life. Hence it is critical that we evaluate our career options holistically before we start our journey. It is not a dead end for those who have already started their journey but changing their situation which requires further exploration.

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