Success & Happiness - The Irreconcilable Pair, Reconciled

There seems to be a natural and cultural obsession with achieving certain goals and being successful. And it’s not the obvious ones like money, fame, or status. This dynamic also includes contributing to society, starting a business, having a beautiful partner, being in shape or finishing college.

There is nothing inherently wrong with setting goals and ideals for ourselves, but there is one when our happiness depends on it.

Happiness and Goals

The truth is we are logical beings, for the most part. And we use logic to help us decide how we should act, now and in the future.

Let’s say there’s an amateur tennis player that wants to get better. To do that, he decides he will play 10 games a month. And since he loves maths too, he crafted a graph to help visualize what he should do.

On the Y axis he will have the percentage of games won and on the X axis the number of months he played. On the first month he wins, on average, 2 out of 10 games. On the second month he wins 4 out of 10 games. It’s logical to assume that if the more he plays, the more games he will win, until he wins almost every match.

Logical, right? But what happens is what we are measuring is happiness….

What happens when we, for example, achieve some small goal like, getting an A on Statistics or getting hired? We become a little bit more happy, right?

Let’s measure happiness on the Y Axis and Goals Achieved on the X Axis

So, when we get an A in Statistics, we become a little bit happier. When we get hired, we become a little happier still. And, since we are logical beings like the tennis player, we extrapolate that if we achieve all of our goals and ideals, we will reach Forever Happy Land!

But is that what truly happens?

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What The Rich and Famous Can Teach Us

It’s not uncommon to hear or watch on TV that famous and rich people that supposedly have it all are suffering severe depression, abusing drugs, and in extreme cases, committing suicide. And it begs for the question: How can they behave that way; how can they suffer that way if they have it all?

And this is not a dynamic that is only occurring on them. It’s something that you and I – probably at a smaller degree – suffer too.

Even though it seems reasonable to assume that success and achievement have a direct correlation with our level of happiness, just like more hours playing tennis cause an improvement in skill, therefore, matches won, it might not be the case. Human psychology is complicated and cannot be reduced to a simple equation.

Perhaps there is nothing flawed with us or even famous people. Perhaps the answer does not lie in the logic of the graph, but how we understand one of the axis. 

What is Happiness Anyways?

The understanding of Happiness in Western culture can be described as the feeling that occurs when life goes our way.

At a first glance, it seems there is nothing wrong with this definition. When we win, we are happy, we when lose we are not. But let’s look at it a bit more careful.

If happiness is a feeling that OCCURS when life goes our way, it means that our well-being is dependent on circumstances. In other words, we are at mercy of them and we don’t have a saying about it – which renders us helpless.

Based on our understanding of happiness, whether is cultural or personal, we are bound to keep striving for more, to keep accomplishing, to keep life going our way, believing that once we get everything we want, we will finally make it.

If this sounds like mouse on the wheel metaphor, it’s because it is. Yet, Western culture doesn’t leave us with much of a choice either.

Two and a half millennia ago the Buddha told us that the only way to find true happiness, is to renunciate all desire. Yet when the time comes, few of us are willing to take such an extreme path.

Maybe the solution is not to keep running the mouse wheel or to shave our heads and become full time monks. Perhaps the solution finds itself when we reformulate what happiness is to us.

They Key Is To Reinterpret Happiness

If I show you these two colors, what do you say they are? One is obviously green and the other one blue. But recent studies suggest if I asked the same question to an Ancient Chinese Person, they would have not realized the difference. Why? Because blue didn’t exist in the language.

In 2006, Jules Davidoff, a psychologist from Goldsmiths University of London showed the Himba tribe in Namibia a circle with 11 green squares and one clearly blue square. Since they didn’t have the color blue in their language, no distinction could be made between the two of them.

Now, if these people couldn’t recognize a color because of their language, imagine the repercussions our culture has because we have an incorrect understanding of happiness!

Happiness Revisited

If happiness is defined as an inner experience of well-being, independent from circumstances, and that can be worked upon – there would be a shift in the way we behave and even the way we feel.

This would mean it doesn’t matter whether we achieve something or not, our happiness would not be affected. And instead of saying that happiness is dependent of circumstances, we can say that it is something we generate.

The chart we previously conceived would change its axis for a more accurate word, like fulfillment – and happiness would be literally out of the equation.

Since it is something that can be worked upon, practices like meditation and mindfulness would be more prevalent.

And all of this just by changing how we understand a single word.

When our happiness does not depend on us achieving our goals. When we are happy whether our dreams get accomplished or not. When we learn to enjoy the process even though we are not sure we will make it. When we are free from as well as free to pursue or goals and dreams, it’s when we have found true happiness.

And I’m along for the ride.

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