Everyone wants to be successful. But few people take the time and energy to define the success they want. As a result, they spend most, if not all, of their lives chasing what society superimposes on them as success. Examples include a bigger house; a faster car; a more prestigious position; greater relevance on the internet. Yet, even if someone finally attains these so-called successes, they are often left wanting.
In ancient eastern psychology there is a concept known as the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost has an endless stomach. He keeps on eating, stuffing himself sick, but he never feels full. It’s a severe disorder.
The survival of a consumerist economy, like the one most of us live in, depends on the creation of hungry ghosts. But you, me—all of us—can choose to opt out of this game. We don’t have to become hungry ghosts. We simply need to step back and reflect upon what it is that we actually want. Simple, sure. But not necessarily easy.
“Most people never stop to question the premise of their true wants and all of the activity aimed toward them,” writes the psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher Erich Fromm, in his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. “In school, children want to have good marks, as adults people want to be more and more successful, to make money, to have more prestige, to buy a better car, to go places, and so on. Yet when they stop to think in the midst of all this frantic activity, this question may come to their minds: If get this new job, this better car, if I can take this trip—what then? Am I not running after some goal which is supposed to make me happy and which eludes me as soon as I have reached it?”
These prompts, when they arise, are frightening. “For they question the very basis on which man’s whole activity is built,” Fromm writes. “People tend, therefore, to get rid as soon as possible of these thoughts.” Generally, they do this by heedlessly throwing themselves back into frantic activity or by numbing themselves with mass-produced booze, mass-produced drugs, mass-produced food, mass-produced porn, or mass-produced television. And so the cycle of not-so-satisfying success repeats. Consumer confidence is high. But individual fulfillment and genuine happiness is low.
We owe it to ourselves to interrupt this cycle. To ask the question: What do I really want? What would a more grounded kind of success look like? Sure, this can be scary. But even scarier is lying on your death bed and realizing that you lived as a hungry ghost, that you spent most of your life striving for empty goals dictated to you by external forces.
It’s high time to redefine success. Success is not something that you reach—not something that is outside of yourself, just down the field. Success is creating a life you want to live in right now. The great tragedy, Fromm writes, is that “man misses the only satisfaction that can give him really happiness—the experience of the activity in the present moment—and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it—the illusory happiness called success.”
According to decades of psychological research, a successful life is one in which your basic needs for food, shelter, health care, and income are met and in which you have a sense of autonomy, mastery, and belonging. A life that is not about enduring means you can’t stand in order to reach ends you are supposed to want; but rather, about selecting pursuits based on how much you’ll enjoy the process of doing them. After all, it is the process that makes up ninety-nine percent of your life. End results, good or bad, are ephemeral. But the process? That’s how you spend your days, months, and years. That’s what really matters.
This new definition of success might mean not taking the promotion that offers a better title and salary; not buying an expensive car because your neighbors have one; not going on the fancy (but probably stressful) vacation because it’s what you’re supposed to do. Success is about stepping back and asking yourself What do I really want? And then doing what you can to align your actions—the unfolding process of your life—with how you answer. It is in this way that you own success, and not just figuratively, but literally, too. It is how you make success yours.