“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Thomas Merton.
The notion that money can’t buy happiness is deeply ingrained in the minds of most of us. Most of us have heard words to that effect since we were children, from parents, teachers, clergymen, and lots of other folks. There is, however, a difference between having a belief ingrained in one’s mind and experiencing something as “truth”. While we all may have been taught that money can’t buy happiness, on a deeper, perhaps unconscious level, we may not fully accept that view. In a culture as oriented towards the value of material accumulation as a reflection of success, and one that sees a measure of success in terms of financial wealth, it’s hard not to equate money, with success and success with happiness.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, in our culture, to think of “success” in terms that are non-monetary. The very term, “successful” so strongly connotes material and financial wealth, that the two terms seem synonymous. It’s hard to even envision a person described as successful as being poor, or even middle classed.
But does success inherently mean great financial wealth, or may it perhaps mean something other than that?
The dictionary defines success as “the achievement of something desired, planned or attempted”. It doesn’t specify what that “something” should be, yet the association of success with money is so intrinsic to Western culture’s perception of the term that it’s difficult, if not impossible for any of us not to be at least somewhat influenced by it.
Conflating money and success, and success with happiness wouldn’t be a problem if it were true. According to an abundant amount of research on happiness that has been conducted over the past few decades, as well as the personal experience of many of those who have managed to accumulate impressive amounts of wealth in their lives, this doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s not that money can’t provide things that provide comfort and add pleasure to your life, and that a certain amount of it is necessary to in order to fulfill at least our essential needs, it’s just that when it comes to genuine happiness, fulfillment and well-being, material wealth alone won’t get you there. So, you might ask, what will?
Here’s what Daniel Gilbert has to say in response to that question, in his best-selling book, Stumbling on Happiness: “We know that the best predictor of happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends. We know that it is significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health.” And he’s not the only expert who sees it that way. Believe it or not, there are cultures that do not measure success in terms of material and financial wealth, and they rate considerably higher on the happiness scale than the USA does. One country, Bhutan, has a commitment to happiness for the general population actually written into its constitution and evaluates its success in accordance with a scale that measures GNH (Gross National Happiness). We visited Bhutan in 2011 and experienced a strong commitment to personal relationships throughout the country.
According to a study on happiness by Dan Beutner in his book called Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, researchers found that money does bring some happiness, but not as much as most people think. The richest Americans earning 10 million annually have only slightly higher scores than the office workers and blue-collar workers they employ.
Ed Diener, a highly respected happiness researcher from the University of Illinois and author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth has come up with some impressive findings in his international cross-cultural studies. Using a 0 to 7 point measurement scale, he found that the 400 richest Americans according to Forbe’s Magazine, got a score of 5.8, the highest score of any group that Diener studied. Three other groups, however tied the Forbes group with 5.8 scores, yet they were at the opposite end of the financial spectrum: the Pennsylvania Amish, the Inuit of Northern Greenland, an indigenous hunting and fishing people, and the Masai, a traditional herding people in East Africa who have no electricity or running water and live in huts made out of dried cow dung. What these three groups have in common is that they all live in communities where people take good care of each other, share their resources, and have minimal economic distinctions.
Most of the members of these modest cultures consider themselves successful and happy and are living lives that are deeply satisfying to them. They tend to value cooperation and friendship over competition and material accumulation and are strongly grounded in relationship ties, cultural expression, and spiritual growth.
It behooves us to rethink our own personal definition of success lest we be drawn into the prevailing view of our society. Feelings of true happiness and success come from deep and loving relationships which bring peace, fulfillment, and life satisfaction that is our real psychological wealth. It is possible to become wise before we become old and to live a life truly in alignment with our values. This is the essence of integrity and integrity is the foundation of success in whatever form it is defined.
The idea of challenging the conventional definition of success is nothing new. The great American, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered his personal concept of success over 150 years ago. Even though he wrote these words long ago, they may be even more relevant today than they were then. What do you think?
To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children; to earn the
appreciation of honest critics and
endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty, to find the best
in others; to leave the world a bit
better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden path or a redeemed
social condition; to know even
one life has breathed easier because
you have lived. This is to have succeeded.