Everyone is talking about the fragility of life right now. It’s as though, after epochs of existence, people have finally realized that there’s no reset button, no do-over option or pausing. From TV shows to songs, movies to books, there’s been a sudden dawning of “now” being the only future we have. This is exactly why your family, friends, and a cornucopia of prolific internet quotes will tell you to “live for the now.” Because everything else is in the past. But how can we do that? How can we, as individuals in a society dominated by hallmarks of achievement not equally available to us, be happy and successful in parallel?
Fall down a little rabbit hole with me as we explore the philosophical beliefs, psychological reasoning, and the contentious sociological perception of success versus an individual’s need for happiness and how we can all navigate the way to our so-called “best lives”.
First thing’s first: What is the definition of “success”?
Simply put, it is “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”
Secondly, what is the definition of “happiness”?
According to Kendra Cherry, “While happiness has many different definitions, it is often described as involving positive emotions and life satisfaction… Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment. Generally, happiness has more positive feeling than negative.”
But here’s the tricky part. If our ultimate purpose in life as individuals is to be happy, while our societal perception of success is oriented towards money, fancy cars, big houses, posh suits, and a perfect partnership, a huge portion of us will feel dissatisfied should we not achieve these things, thus failing our individual needs as well as society’s, rendering us forever unhappy.
What a paradox!
A good life hasn’t always been about these superficial things, though. Back in Ancient Greece, Stoic philosophy taught success on the merits of virtue, not money. Modern Westernised society appears to have shifted our goalpost to something that isn’t widely attainable. But being a good person is a far better ideal all-round than being a rich person. In a nutshell, stoic philosophy’s focus is on “people living their best lives,” which they felt could be achieved by virtuosity. Unlike the modern era, which predominantly focuses on aesthetic perfection, notoriety, and financial success, the Stoics believed tranquillity and happiness could be obtained through one’s own virtuosity. By outputting more positivity into the world, by virtue, more positivity should be returned. The same goes for the opposite. This practice has been used by many famous faces over the years, from George Washington to Tom Brady, so it goes to show that whilst this school of thought may be nearly 2,000 years old, it’s just as relevant today as it was then.
Keeping in mind the idea that happiness is based on more intrinsic qualities, discovering which places and people are notoriously the “happiest” and why that is is an interesting next point.
So, where is the happiest place to live?
According to the World Happiness Report, Finland is the happiest place in the world. In fact, it has been the world’s happiest country for four years running, and with all parts of Scandinavia in the top 10 on this list (bar the Faroe Islands), the Nordic regions are definitely ones to visit if you’re in need of a spring putting back in your step.
And who is the happiest man?
Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk (originally from France) has been called “the world’s happiest man.” After participating in a 12-year brain study on meditation and compassion, led by neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin, they found the highest capacity for happiness ever recorded.
Interestingly, in both of these situations, the factors that play major roles in boosting a person’s happiness are not big wallets, bragging rights on social media, posh villas or enviable status, but a sense of community, trust, compassion and peace. In fact, Finland doesn’t even rank in the Top 30 for the world’s wealthiest countries. As well as this, the people themselves express how their happiness is derived from more personally enriching items, such as a strong social support system among friends and family, regularly enjoying nature (also known as “forest therapy”), freedom to make life choices, staying humble about their lives, absence of corruption in government and the business world, and generosity when it comes to donating to charity. As for Matthieu, his evaluation was discovered through his brain’s unusually high gamma waves (linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory) never before reported in neuroscience. All of these factors proved that having fewer expectations to achieve superficial things actually enabled more perceived levels of happiness.
So, why does each country have such diametrically opposed views of “success” when it’s fairly obvious that, while money helps us achieve some of the things that make us happy, its value in regards to improving our self-perception overall is so small? At the heart of this complicated matter, are how each person’s lifestyle and unique demands plays on the following four basic psychological needs:
1) The need for Attachment—People need secure relationships from the start to avoid detrimental thought patterns and behaviors to situations in adulthood.
2) The need for Control/Orientation—We all want to be able to regulate and understand our environment so our basic needs are met and our perceptions of our goals are doable, this is as true for our physical needs as it is for our psychological needs.
3) The need for Pleasure/Avoidance of Pain—What we define as good or bad is based on our intrinsic motivation toward aligning our perception of experience with our intentions.
4) The need for Self-Enhancement—The need to nurture our self-esteem requires an ability to have a developed self-awareness and to think reflectively. This is the most complex need to achieve, as its growth can be thwarted by other, more basic limbic systems.
Of these needs, attachment and control are developed first, and thus are the major driving force of behavior. Self-enhancement, however, is likely to be the last of the needs to develop in an individual, which is why people sometimes remain in undesirable situations, maintaining their low self-esteem. And while the money-driven idea of success is placed on a pedestal, within a society where being rich isn’t widely attainable, people will inevitably feel socially unfulfilled and experience an existential crisis. With owning a property or finding love given so much precedence, there will continuously be people striving to work out what their “purpose” is, if it isn’t fitting in with one of the recognized “successful bills”. In essence, money is worthless in boosting happiness, but it does have the power to manipulate it by enabling these behavioral values in certain situations.
Could this explain why an overachiever who’s been down on their luck feels more societal pressure weighing them down than an underachiever does? The options were wider, the expectations are thus higher, and the “success rate” feels lower. Perhaps. But after a lot of back and forth thought tossing, in my honest opinion, a minimalist life with acceptance, care for others, and a down-to-earth viewpoint is probably the “best” way to live. Be kind and honest, don’t judge or compare yourself to others, be inspired—offer something to the world. Say yes, but feel the freedom to say no, too. Look after your body and your mind. Life doesn’t have to be a game with money as the prize, or the world’s most flawless marriage, or the highest Instagram following; it can simply be about truth. Forget people-pleasing and status—if you truly want to be happy and successful, be who you are. The rest will fall into place.