Just like anyone, I want to be happy. But for a long time, I wasn’t actively thinking about what would or would not make me happy. And for some reason, over the last years I’ve grown more interested in the topic. It comes back in some of the books I read and articles I write (e.g. on Strengths and Happiness).
Happiness however, is an elusive concept. It’s not easy to understand, pursue, or ‘have’. And as someone who likes to strive for success, happiness seems to be particularly elusive. Specifically, I found 3 paradoxes of happiness and success that make it difficult for people who strive for success to be happy, and the other way around. So what are these, and how do we manage them?
What is Success?
Suppose that you could be super successful in any area of your life with just one push of a button. Would you do it? You probably would. Success is a positive state, and while not everyone very actively strives for it, you would accept it when it comes to you.
Apparently, success is a positive thing. But if we talk about success, what do we mean? It can be success in your career, success in love, success in friendships, success in life. And success in each of these aspects of our lives (and many more) can again be sub-divided. For instance, what do we mean with success in love? Is it that your partner is beautiful, or that he/she is great with kids? Or perhaps success in love is simply having a lot of people fall in love with you?
So how we define success differs from person to person. For example, every day I strive to learn more, to be a kinder person, to be more extraverted, to grow my income, to become a more loving and positive future husband, to positively impact more people at the meetups that I organize, etc.
For me, these things constitute striving for success. So more generally, I see success an an improvement of the way things currently are. And I suppose that’s something I and many others want.
What is Happiness?
With that out of the way, let’s turn to happiness. We all have an idea of what happiness is. In positive psychology (“the scientific study of the ‘good life’“), happiness can be defined as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” (Lyubomirsky).
That’s still a rather broad definition. But it’s important to note that happiness is not feeling good all of the time. It’s not the same as pleasure — like the pleasure we may get from sex, food, sugar, or drugs. Rather, happiness is an enduring state of contentment and feeling good; something that occurs over a longer period of time.
Paradox 1: Being Happy and Striving for Success
So if we use these two definitions: an improvement of the way things currently are, and an enduring state of contentment, then it becomes clear how difficult it is to combine happiness and success.
This is where we get to the first paradox: How exactly can we combine happiness and success, or personal development? How can we be content with what we have now, and yet strive to become our better selves?
In my opinion, you can’t really be ‘fully’ happy or perhaps ‘fully’ content, and strive for growth, personal development, and indeed, success. It’s an antithesis, a paradox. Because if you would be truly happy with the current state of affairs, why change them?
Paradox 2: Giving Up Happiness to Become Successful
We find a second paradox if we look at how we reach a state of success. In particular, in order to be successful, you sometimes have to give up your happiness.
Certainly, some people do what they love and get to the top regardless. But in many cases, you first have to be a bit less happy in order to achieve more success.
Obvious examples of this are high-demanding jobs; like lawyers at prestigious law firms, or management consultants at one of the Big Three. People who have these jobs often work for more than 60 hours per week, and do this for 5-15 years in order to get to the final destination: To Become ‘Partner’. Even if you really like your job, I doubt that anyone would be happy working 60+-hour weeks.
This is just one example, but we can think of many more. Suppose you have a baby that cries a lot; this may mean you have to get through several years of sleepless nights, before you can actually build a good bond with your child. Or perhaps you have to suffer at the gym for 100 hours before you really get in shape and can reap the rewards.
These examples may or may not be relevant to you, but it’s clear that sometimes, in order to be more successful, you have to be flexible with how happy you want to be.
Paradox 3: Goals and Buddhist Equanimity
The third and related paradox is found when discussing your goals in life. But first, I have to explain something about Buddhism and the idea of detachment and equanimity.
According to The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga (Levine), equanimity is “a sublime acceptance of the widest range of life’s alternatives. This attitude of equanimity is another form of the Buddhist ideal of detachment. The Buddhists teach: don’t be attached to winning, to comforts, to particular circumstances of life. Rather, be accepting of a wide range of possibilities.”
So it seems that this equanimity is a very useful tool if you want to become happy. After all, if you can accept and are truly content with any situation, you should be pretty happy, right? So why shouldn’t we try to be more equanimous? Well, if you are somewhat like me and strive for success, you often pick specific goals to reach — and this is where the third paradox comes into play.
Here, the book provides an interesting example: Suppose you’re a great flutist. Your goal is to play professionally, and this seems to be within reach. Detachment then, is to learn to let go, should it be necessary. To understand and acknowledge that your fluting career can be over in a whim — if you break your finger or are not deemed good enough to join the orchestra. To be able to walk away, without hard feelings.
But this seems impossible. Can you really approach life with equanimity while striving for grand goals? Can you dedicate your life to chasing a dream and still be satisfied and happy when it all falls apart? According to the book, devotion to a goal and attachment to it are two different things, but I disagree. In my opinion, you cannot fully devote yourself to something without also becoming attached. Or in other words, you cannot strive for success without becoming less happy if you don’t reach it.
Managing Happiness and Success
Considering these 3 paradoxes, how do we go about reaching a state of happiness and success at the same time? As mentioned, this is difficult to do. Luckily, there are (at least) 3 ways in which we can ‘ease our suffering’ and be happier — even when striving for improvements in our lives and success.
First, we can practice the mentioned equanimity. Being fully accepting of any and all situations is impossible, but we can try and be more accepting than we currently are. Whether it rains or shines, accept it. Try to accept the situation you’re in right now, and the situation you will be in tomorrow.
Second, we can practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude (which has a scientifically-proven positive impact on happiness) is the act of writing down (or thinking about) things you’re thankful for in your life. Practicing gratitude makes you pause for a bit. To not consider future states and the goals or success you hope to reach — but instead to consider the things in your current life you are content and happy with.
And third, we can actively try to live in the present. After all, the more you’re focussed on success, the more your head is in the future. I often think about ‘what will happen when I get rich’, or ‘what will happen when I get married’, or ‘what will happen when…’ But our lives are now. Our lives are now! We can work towards success, wish for it, and do everything to get to a certain place, as if our lives depended on it. But it’s not the goal that we should be happy with, but the road towards it. And after all is said and done, there’s only a limited amount of things we can exercise control over. We might be dead tomorrow. Or as Tyler Durden says in Fight Club:
This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.