If you are at home, sitting on a desk, reading this in your comfiest work-from-home clothes, whiling away time as a welcome distraction to productivity, you, like me, are one of the very lucky few. We are lucky to have the grounds, the opportunity and the bandwidth to do some very basic thinking.
And among the many mundane and grand thinking I am doing and did the past months, this is one basic thought that deserves to be shared: The goal from here on out should be a meaningful life, not so much a successful one.
“Success,” loosely defined in any English dictionary, means “the attainment of wealth, favor or eminence.” Success is the ticking off the bucket list of any normal hard-working person: A big house, a sprawling garden up front, a shiny car or two, some nice clothes, plenty of Instagram followers, social media posts of endless vacations and overflowing drinks and dinner tables.
Now who would not want that? The big house, the garden, the car/s – they are symbols of hard-earned labor, of years of toil and sacrifice. The many social media followers, likes and stories of extravagant meals and exotic trips – they are outward, temporary proofs of, well, attained success.
Nothing is wrong with all of these at the moment of actualization. The sudden electric flow of endorphins through one’s veins is addicting. We have all felt some sort of fulfillment when a post reaches more than a hundred likes, when the pair shoes of we have been eyeing since January is finally in our shoe closet, when the condo unit is finally fit for Pinterest.
The problem with success is that the happy hormones fade as soon as they pass through us. Psychologists have even come up with a term for this temporary joy: “The Hedonic Treadmill.” It is the theory that as a person makes more money (and buys everything with that money), expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness. As sociologist-professor Arthur Brooks put it, “Satisfaction will always escape our grasp.” Success, as we know it, never satisfies. It never will.
On the other hand, “meaning” in any English dictionary is “the implication of a hidden or special significance.” It is the perfect play of two opposing factors within us: independence and interconnectedness; self-definition and community; ethical individualism and social justice.
Where success is more outward and more tangible, meaning is more hidden and inward. Meaning can never be captured on camera or bought from stores. Where success implies comparison with others (my house is bigger than his, my cars are shinier, my clothes nicer), meaning depends solely on the person defining it (the movie producer who finds joy, not in awards or grand after-parties, but in three pieces of donuts shared with his daughters; the New York-based Michelin-starred chef who, after 30 years of 20-hour workdays, found that the highlight of his career was feeding his hungry countrymen back in India during this pandemic; my sister raising her two sons).
The solution, therefore, to success’ problem is meaning. For meaning does not negate success, rather, meaning encompasses it. Success without meaning leads to emptiness. But the higher goal of living a meaningful life is, though not always comfortable, always transformational.
The beauty about meaning is that the equation is so simple. A meaningful life, as Brooks has discovered after years of academic research, is enduring happiness that comes from life’s transcendental elements (Why am I alive? Who do I live for?); flourishing human relationships (Who do I love? Who loves me back?); and productive work (Does this work earn me success and ultimately, does it serve others?)
In 2015, the Strayer University launched a petition to “Readdress Success.” They too found the dictionary definition of “success” problematic and wanted Merriam-Webster to shift it to the “more meaningful aspects that make life worth living,” instead of focusing on wealth and fame. Merriam-Webster did not bother changing the definition even if Strayer University garnered 100,000 signatures. But author Po Bronson’s definition, after travelling around the United States of America for a year, asking people from all walks of life the real meaning of success, would have been perfect.
“Success,” he concluded, “is defined as when you are no longer held back by your heart, and your character blossoms, and the gifts you have to offer the world are apparent.”
Look how similar Bronson’s definition of success is to Brooks’ equation to a meaningful life. Look how far we can go if we make meaning, not success, the goal from now on.
Think about it.
Your Deep Fridays Co-Founder and Editor