Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Shifting Focus to What Really Matters in Life

External achievements will not bring sustaining happiness and meaning.

Source: Pexels

Yesterday, I went to a clinical training on trauma-which happened to be held at a nursing home. I work as a therapist with adolescent girls, and admittedly my time spend around the elderly is limited. I was struck by how joyous and full of life the residents at the nursing home seemed to be and it got me thinking about what really matters.

We live in a culture that places a high premium on external measures of success. As a society we value appearances that fall within our unrealistic standards of beauty, pride ourselves on being constantly busy, and seem to be constantly striving to make more money or have nicer things. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious-but often I think that we mistakenly equate some of these external achievements with experiencing greater happiness.

However, psychologists have coined a term “hedonic adaptation,” which refers to the common phenomenon where people quickly become used to external changes (good or bad), and return to their baseline state of happiness. According to psychologist, Heidi Halvorson Ph.D,

“One often-cited study famously showed that despite their initial euphoria, lottery winners were no happier than non-winners eighteen months later. The same tendency to return to “baseline” has been shown to occur after marriage, voluntary job changes, and promotions-the kinds of things we usually expect to change our happiness and well-being for the better in a permanent way.”

We have all experienced the initial high of reaching an external goal-only to realize that once we have achieved a goal, often we simply move on to the next one or raise the benchmark of how we define success. Bronnie Ware, woman who worked in palliative care, penned the well-known article entitled “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.” According to Ware, the most common regrets that she heard were the following,

“1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish I’d let myself be happier.”

It’s important to note that none of these regrets of the dying focus on external achievements, such as having a six-pack, making more money, or the number of Facebook followers-rather they touch on values that truly matter, such as vulnerability, balanced living, having meaningful relationships, and authenticity.

Often we are so caught up in the pursuit of these external measures of success, that we forget about the values that really matter. For instance, picture a woman who has decided to go on a strict diet to lose weight. This is problematic for many reasons. Aside from the fact that diets do not work in regards to long-term weight-control, going on a diet is also shown to contribute to individuals being obsessed and preoccupied with thoughts of food. This makes sense evolutionarily. Your body did not want to starve to death-therefore when faced with the threat of starvation it was evolutionarily adaptive for you to notice any potential food sources in the surrounding environment.

I bring up the example of dieting because it is so pervasive in our culture that it has become the norm. According to data from The Boston Medical Center, approximately 45 million Americans diet each year. This is to say that every year 45 million people are relentlessly pursing this external goal of “weight loss,” which 95% of the time will not be sustainable long-term.

Even if somehow they were able to maintain a suppressed weight, this would probably not make them any happier in the long term. Obsessing about food, weight, and exercise, keeps people away from the things in life that truly matter-such as having healthy and fulfilling relationships with friends and family. Do you really think at the end of your life, you will be sitting around saying, “you know I really wish I had been thinner.”

We often like to think that we have unlimited time, but all that we can truly count on is this moment. Practicing gratitude for all that you do have, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with the people who matter, doing random acts of kindness, and not being afraid to show others your authentic, imperfect, and beautiful self-is what we should all be striving for.

We are given this one life, and I encourage you to dig deep and think about how you want to spend your time and energy. I don’t know about you, but while I’m here I want to go on more adventures, learn new things, connect with people in an authentic and meaningful way, build the kinds of relationships that I deserve, taste delicious foods, travel, help others who are struggling, and let myself experience and feel every emotion-pleasant and unpleasant.

I used to be caught up in external benchmarks of success-and admittedly it is something I still sometimes focus on. After all, there is nothing wrong with want to strive for your "dream job" (although, I would say that trying to meet the idealized standard of beauty is a fruitless and meaningless battle). However, I think that it is important to put the idea of achieving external goals into perspective. When you become all-consumed and measure your sense of self-worth in terms of something external-that is when this drive becomes problematic.

This week and beyond, I would urge you to think about what your values are. If you are living a life that is not in accordance with you true values-it may be time to be courageous and to start making some changes.

For self-love, body-positive, and recovery inspiration, connect with Jennifer on Facebook.