Does Your Definition of Success Make You Happy?
Inspiration for this blog post came from two recent graduates of Evergreen High School, Class of 2016: Rachel Turner, Salutatorian and Henry Raeder, my nephew and “Outstanding Senior.”
During her speech, Rachel exposed the cracks in the high school gold standard of evaluation and by which she had done so well—the high school GPA—and challenged the rest of us to think more broadly. In a graduating class where 90 percent of the students go on to college, Rachel reminded us: You are not a number. The numbers before and after a mere decimal point do not determine your success, and especially, do not determine your happiness. She dared the audience, comprised of classmates, teachers and parents, to evaluate their definition of success.
I’m going to follow her lead and ask you to do the same.
Seriously, pause here.
Take a breath.
What IS your definition of success?
And does that definition make you happy?
I swallowed society’s definition of success hook, line and sinker (damn, it’s really hard to write without clichés). I worked hard in high school, got good grades, went to a good college, got a good job, got married, got a house, got a dog—but I was far from happy.
I thought if I followed the success formula that begins with a good GPA and ends with a healthy salary and 401k, I would be happy. What I didn’t realize is that I’d been following someone else’s rules, someone else’s definition of success, and I hadn’t paused to question the rules.
So let me ask this another way: What truly makes you happy? When do you feel joy?
How we define success will determine to what degree we are happy, so it’s important to know what really makes you happy. And more than anything, researchers are finding out that our mindset is what creates our happiness.
According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, happiness can be synthesized. You don’t’ have to wait to get what you want. “From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.” What Gilbert goes on to say is that we can synthesize happiness to the situation at hand. In other words, we can decide to look at things differently, so that we feel happier.
Fortunately, I was reminded of what makes me happy this past weekend when I went to Evergreen, CO, for my nephew’s graduation. My happiest moments were sitting around with the family, telling stories and laughing.
It turns out, I stumbled upon another discovery about happiness from a different Harvard study. Much has been written about how the pursuit of things does not make us happy, but another Harvard study, the Grant study, proves it: “Your relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise… Those satisfied in their relationships were happier and healthier. It was that simple.” The single greatest factor that contributes to happiness is how satisfied we are in our relationships.
Here are some pitfalls to avoid and things to consider when creating your own definition of happiness.
Is your definition of happiness dependent on another person? Because no one else can make you happy. That’s the good news and the bad news. This is where most of us get ourselves into trouble. We make our happiness dependent on what another person does or how they behave or who they are. The truth is, happiness lies in our own hands and is determined largely by what our values are and how closely we live in alignment to them.
Easier said than done.
Most of us have to do some self-reflection to uncover what our values truly are. It’s natural to adopt the values of our parents, friends, and the society we grow up in, but some of those values may fit and others may not. Oh, and do yourself a favor. Choose five to live by. I know you overachiever perfectionist types will want to choose, like, 15. But that doesn’t lead to happiness. It leads to indecision, frustration, and a chronic sense that you’re falling short.
Is your definition of success dependent on being better than others? Because if it is, you’re in for a long life of never being good enough. What if your definition were based, instead, on how you show up? Who do you want to be when you show up? Are you showing up as the best version of yourself? And by “best,” I don’t mean perfect. I mean authentic. Here’s an example.
I’m going to take a moment to embarrass my nephew, Henry Raeder. He was chosen “Most Outstanding Senior” by the faculty of Evergreen High School. I believe that he received this award in part because of what he accomplished, but even more, because of who he is and how he showed up every day: an enthusiastic student, a nice, funny, smart kid who enjoys learning and loves to improve at whatever he is doing—singing, playing tennis, and even, perhaps, at solving differential equations (ugh). Along the way of being himself, he’s accomplished a few things, it’s true. But it’s who he IS that earned him an award.
Are you focusing on the end result or the journey? To quote Emerson again (and remind us of yet another cliché), “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Enjoying the journey will help keep us on track toward whatever the goal is. Research by Fishbach and Choi found that setting goals is a good way to kick start a new journey, but people who enjoy the process continue on the journey for a longer period of time. Why not conduct a little experiment to see whether this rings true for you?
Experiment: Choose a task that you want to accomplish, but instead of focusing on the result, focus on what it will feel like while you’re doing it. How can you make it more enjoyable? Ask yourself: What do I want to feel during this _______ (project, conversation, etc. etc.)? Excitement? Curiosity? Fun? Generous? In order to feel that way, what do you need to think?
Let me know what happens! I’d love to hear from you.
Having trouble figuring out what makes you happy or what defines success for you?
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