At the start of a new year, I often struggle not to fall into asking myself the success-based questions. How am I doing? Am I having a successful life so far or have I had more failure than success? How do I measure my personal success and failure? What is success for me? Was my success really successful or was it considered successful because other people said it was? Did I really fail or was I just looking at myself behind another set of bars created by other people?
Similarly, when I discover someone that I admire – be it for the research they might have just published, or the idea they came up with, or their project they have completed – I can become a bit obsessed with finding out more about the person’s entire career. What did they do before? Where did they train? Who have they been working with? How old were they when they obtained each of these career or life achievements? And it comes down to - is my level of success comparable to theirs?
And particularly at the beginning of the year, it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling a bit behind in life. It might be the excessively happy and glowy insta pictures of excessively happy and glowy families starkly reminding us that we’re single and alone and living with our parents (albeit contentedly). It might be putting on the bikini and remembering that – again – we didn’t become that thinner, fitter version of our self in 2017 (despite not really intending to). Or maybe we’ve returned to work and two days in it feels more like 52 days in.
Sometimes it might not be other people’s accomplishments that spur on the feeling that we are lacking in some way, but our own expectations. Have I made the right decision about work? Should I still be plodding away with a side business? Maybe things will be just a bit better once I have achieved x, y and z?
When we keep moving our own goalposts, we keep changing our definition of success, to the point of it becoming meaningless. If our expectations, wishes and dreams keep changing we will forever feel like we’re falling short. Wherever these expectations are coming from.
I’m not suggesting that we should abandon all of our goals entirely. We know that goals are incredibly useful for our motivation, for purpose, for creating order in our lives. But when these goals are continually linked to our unlived experiences or potential, or we have borrowed them from our friends or internalised expectations from what society thinks we should be doing, we’re not aiming for success of our making.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a psychologist hero of mine, whose last name I cannot pronounce) suggests that there’s no inherent problem with our desire to pursue goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. If we become so fixated on finding a partner or buying a house or getting a 6-figure salary, we’re going to struggle to derive any pleasure from the present. And we say goodbye to contentment. And wellbeing.
A lot of our daily activities and goals are ‘exotelic’, meaning we reap the benefits sometime in the future, rather than enjoying them for their own sake in the present. But according to Csikszenbdjbgfdjksbgjdsk (surely that’s about right) if we learn to find meaning and enjoyment in the process or experience of living itself, the burden of internal and external expectations can fall from one’s shoulders.
If we were to look at it from a Positive Psychology perspective (the branch of psychology focusing on human strengths and well-being), we wouldn’t be looking at success in terms of goal achievements and avoiding failures. Success would be all about our sense of well-being. That’s a different kind of success really. Success with a capital “S”.
One of the key takeaways from Positive Psychology is that relationships with other people matter most. In fact, a Harvard study that followed 268 sophomores from the late 1930s and early 1940s over the course of their adult lives showed that the single most important predictor of successful aging, defined by physical and mental health and satisfaction with life at age 75, wasn’t cholesterol level, salary, treadmill endurance or intelligence. It was having close relationships. Based on the extensive data collected over seven decades, the author concluded: “The only things that matter in life are your relations to other people.”
However, contrary to what many believe, this doesn’t mean sacrificing our own well-being. In fact, personal well-being is essential to cultivating quality relationships with others. In the same way that we tend to over-emphasize the importance of power and money when thinking about success, we also over-inflate the value of self-sacrifice. It’s so tempting to buy into the myth that there is something noble about putting our own needs last, and women are especially vulnerable to this.
According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman, we experience approximately 20,000 moments each day. But actually taking our focus away from our goals, ensuring our attention is not caught up in our yet unlived experiences is tough. Making the most of each of these moments is a choice.
Let’s remind ourselves of this choice. It’s not easy, this constant wrestle between our lived and unlived lives; our expectations and reality; our future goals and current experiences. But it is entirely possible that by choosing to prioritise moments and experiences that enhance the now and our well-being, we may already be leading Successful lives with a capital “S.”