Stop Sacrificing Happiness for Success

Every so often I wonder:

Are successful people happy?

I would look at the people who have more than I have, and I would consider them successful. Earlier I believed that people who have more than I have must be happier than me. And since I am quite a happy person myself (in my own way), people who are happier than me must be really- really happy.

If as a blogger I have 100 followers and I am happy with my blogging experience, then someone with 100 000 followers must be 1000 times happier. Of course happiness is unlikely to mathematically correlate with the number of followers, but you’ve got the point.

However, once I started coaching and consulting people who had more than I had, I found out how wrong I was. Turns out that external success can have no correlation with happiness, and sometimes these two are in inverse proportion: success demands a sacrifice of happiness.

Before we continue, let’s set up some terminology conventions. Success and happiness are philosophical concepts, therefore they don’t really have any concrete definition. Probably, finding your own definition for them is the part of the quest called “life”. And the definitions will vary from person to person.

So, just for the sake of this exploration, let’s distinguish success from happiness as follows:

Success is when reality corresponds to some external social expectations.

E.g.: Your mom expects you to be a respected medical doctor, and when you graduate from your medical school, you are on the way to success. 
Or your girlfriend expects you to take her to expensive restaurants, and when you get hired for a well-paid project, you are on your way to success.

Happiness is when reality corresponds to your internal aspirations.

This is where the conflict lies.

Take the previous example:

Your mom expects you to be a respected medical doctor. But your internal aspiration is more about spending your days writing and performing rock ballads. If you go to medical school you may perform well there. But this is not the performance that will make you happy. On the contrary, the better you perform in medicine, the fewer chances music stands to appear in your life. And the less happy you are.

You may not believe it, but from my experience of working with such issues, most people are convinced that sacrificing happiness for success is the ultimate reality of life. They don’t even realize that when they fulfill external expectations they take away from their own happiness. They were taught that happiness is about fulfilling the external expectations… and they wonder why they “can’t find the ruby in the mountain of rocks”.

Yet, it is actually mandatory to not sacrifice happiness for success if you don’t want to find yourself brokenhearted and depressed on one beautiful Thursday morning.

In an ideal world, your internal aspirations and society’s external expectation of you would match.

If your mom expects you to become a respected doctor and you dream of nothing but prescribing penicillin for strep-throats, you win the lottery. You will be a happy and successful person.

Yet, this is not a solution because such luck almost never happens. Our internal aspirations didn’t naturally evolve to match any frameworks of modern society with its expectations. It’s also not a solution, because you can’t really have an active part in provoking such a condition. You can’t force yourself to aspire for things society expects of you and become happy. This is called self-deception, and although it may work just fine short-term, it will prove disastrous in the course of your life. 
In fact, such self-deception is exactly the reason why so many people need the services of the “happiness industry” (or antidepressants).

What you can actively do is set your priorities straight, with a clear understanding of what it is you are dealing with. And live by your own priorities.

There’s no such thing as the right priorities. People are different.

Some people do become happy by fulfilling external expectations. You may not enjoy that well-paid project as such, but you’re not troubled with it, because the mere fact that you can fulfill your girlfriend’s expectations of you and be the generous “knight in shining armor” fulfills your internal aspiration. Then you go after what we call success here, but you don’t sacrifice your happiness. 
You respect your personal priorities. This IS happiness for you.

Some people are completely different. No amount of external success can make up for the unrealized internal aspiration for them. If that’s you, embrace it. Pursue your happiness, and teach yourself to be ok with the lack of so-called external success.

If you force yourself to work on a well-paid project to please your girlfriend, only to end up miserable because you would so much rather draw murals, you’re probably in the wrong relationships. 
If you consider yourself a “loser” because your murals don’t pay off that well, maybe you are in the wrong relationships with yourself. Maybe you need to distinguish what really matters to you from what is just a mental habit.

You may find out that fulfilling external expectations doesn’t actually bring you a fraction of that joy that your internal aspirations bring when fulfilled. And ditch that learned habit of looking for your happiness in the wrong places.

Your job is to acknowledge this and consciously set your own priorities. Remember: if you look for happiness only where other people marked the spot, you will find somebody else’s happiness. It’s not compatible with you. 
Follow your own map, and find yours.

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