Thoughts (and quotes) on happiness, realizing goals, and what defines “success.”

I’ve written about success in various ways recently (see this and this), and each time I think to myself, “Self, what is success anyway? What does ‘being successful’ mean? After all, isn’t it all subjective?” So, since I enjoy pontificating on these things — and also enjoy writing myself into corners to force constructive contemplation (resulting in admirable alliteration) — I set out to organize my thoughts on the subject, and hopefully justify my writing about it at all.

I sought the help of people I deem objectively “successful” through their thoughts on, well… success, and drew inspiration from books and writings. I also thought back to communication I’ve had with students or young people, because they all tend to ask in one way or another, “How do you become successful?” While I will lay out what I believe constitutes success in this article, my answer to them will simply be, “Stop trying.

First, let’s try to define success.

“Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals.”
— Deepak Chopra

Chopra is a physician and author of the book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. Seems like a good place to start, so let’s break down his two points: happiness and realizing goals.

Finding happiness

Back to the students when they ask, “How can I be successful?”

“Well…” one might respond, “what does it mean to you to be successful?”

In my experience, this answer becomes surprisingly uniform. Overwhelmingly, it will be some version of, “To love what I do and be able to support myself doing it.”

I couldn’t agree more; however, I think there’s slightly more to it, as summed up by Maya Angelou:

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
— Maya Angelou

Liking what you do, and liking how you do it. Great. But liking yourself? That’s where happiness comes in, which gets us into some dicey existential water. What does it mean to be happy?

Like success, happiness is subjective and individual. Yet, also like success, we know happiness when we have it. We certainly know what happiness feels like in a moment. Happiness is simply an emotion and, while emotions can get complex and ambiguous at times, we can always recognize when we’re happy.

In Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck (the premise of which is similar to this post, so I apologize and admit to using the idea, even if it is nonproprietary) he describes happiness as “a form of action… an activity.”

True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving… Negative emotions are a call to action. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are rewards for taking proper action.”

We are also capable of knowing what success feels like in a moment — for example, when we get a promotion, receive an award, or meet a long-term goal (more on that later). Richard Branson describes feeling successful as being “actively engaged.”

“The more you’re actively and practically engaged, the more successful you will feel.”

If happiness is a form of action, I believe success is too. As I said in my post about acting and success, to succeed you need to be working toward something.

Realizing goals

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”
— Albert Einstein

We can all agree that if you set a goal and reach it, you can say you’ve succeeded. Therefore, if success is a form of action, setting and realizing one’s goals would be a logical formula to follow to be “successful.” Goals are actionable. Once you set clearly-defined goals for yourself, you can make decisions based around, and moving toward, those goals.

And yet, goals can be ambiguous. “To fall in love” is certainly a goal of many many people; however, there are not measurable actions one can take to fall in love. Going on dates, being social, maintaining a desirable appearance, sure, but the development of romantic feelings for another person is largely out of your control. As anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you, it “just happens.” (Also, if anyone attempts to make an actionable, measurable checklist out of falling in love, you may be dealing with a sociopath.)

Therefore, if we’re trying to decipher what determines success, let’s distinguish between actionable, measurable goals and aspirational goals. Take the following example.

Measurable goal: To make six figures a year from writing.
Aspirational goal: To inspire people through my writing.

To inspire people, while noble, doesn’t give me a practical road map toward success. How do I know I’ve inspired anyone anyway, a bunch of emails and comments saying “you’re so inspiring”?

To set and realize one’s goals is one thing; however, to feel “successful,” I think there is another component as well…

Overcoming obstacles

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
— Winston Churchill

Would you consider Kim Kardashian successful? After all, she’s rich and famous, she has a successful TV show and is married with children. But I don’t consider her successful. Why? Because she didn’t fight against anything to get where she is.

Now I’m not suggesting she and her family are without problems (in fact, they’ve gotten where they are by being somewhat of a train wreck), but as the saying goes, she’s simply famous for being famous. Kim’s father, Robert Kardashian, and her step father, (now) Caitlyn Jenner, are the (objectively) “successful” ones. Kim “leaked” a sex tape, which led to her being offered a reality show by her friend, another (objectively) “successful” person, Ryan Seacrest, who saw a great money-making opportunity. At least that’s how it began… how it continues is beyond my comprehension.

My opinionated word choice notwithstanding, the point is that success comes from overcoming obstacles in order to reach your goal.

And the same is true with happiness.

The lead-up prior sentence in the aforementioned Mark Manson quote (“True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving”) was this: “Don’t hope for a life without problems. Instead, hope for a life full of good problems.” He goes on to say:

“Happiness requires struggle. It grows from problems. The solution lies in the acceptance and active engagement of that negative experience—not the avoidance of it, not the salvation of it.”

Now I think it’s time to make an important distinction:

Success vs. Being Successful

You’ll notice that we’ve talked about what determines success. We’ve also talked about feeling successful, and people who may or may not be “successful” (notice the quotation marks). However, nowhere have I tried to lay out a formula for “how to be successful” or “what it means to be successful.” Here’s why:

The notion of being successful is a conclusion, an end, a completion, a resolution.

Let’s circle back to Chopra’s two points of success: happiness and the realization of goals. I think we can all agree that no one will ever achieve total and complete happiness (existential and theological belief systems aside). Furthermore, we can agree that we never want to be done being happy.

Goals, on the other hand, in and of themselves, are a conclusion. But here’s the thing about goals — they are ever-changing.

Back to my writing example: Once I make six figures, am I done writing? Do I go for seven? (*Insert the cry laughing emoji here*). What if I make six figures and still no one knows who I am? What if I work so hard at it that my fiancé leaves me for someone named Todd? The same is true even with the aspirational goal. Even if I know I’ve inspired people, then what? I need to inspire more? How many is enough? Then do I do a TED Talk? Start a cult?

Therefore, while individual goals may each bring conclusion, the act of setting them, realizing them, and even changing them, should not.

The original quote by Deepak Chopra was, “Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals.” Notice the wording he uses: “continued expansion;” “progressive realization.” Everything — especially each of us as individuals — is a work in progress.

Conclusion: Maybe the pursuit of success is, in and of itself, success. At the risk of sounding hackneyed…

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

Suggested reading: He: Understanding Masculine Psychology by Robert A. Johnson (which I’ve outlined here).

Stop trying to be successful.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
— Albert Camus

Will this post make me lots of money? Will it inspire even one person? In the words of Mark Manson… “Who gives a f*ck?” I truly enjoyed writing it — that makes it a successful post. Similarly, if anyone aspires to “be successful,” they’re missing the point. Stop trying to be the noun. Do the verb. You achieve success one goal at a time, just as you become happier one moment at a time. Always remember to enjoy the ride.