“Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

~ Aristotle

From the time we were in grade school, many of us were taught to push and drive for our success. Invariably, the voice of doubt creeps in. What will I achieve? Will I be successful? We spend so much time trying to reach for the next thing, convinced that thing will give us greater happiness. If we reach that thing, we shoot for the next thing because the bliss we thought would come didn’t come. The cycle continues – a never-ending treadmill to the golden carrot in the sky.

For those students and their families who have been preoccupied with the right sports team; the right grade; the right high school; the right college, one of the unintended upsides of the global pandemics is that more are seriously questioning what is right, and for whom. These questions are no longer rhetorical; they are very much grounded in reality. When we think about what brings us joy – true joy – it tends not to be what society or someone else has determined for us as the pinnacle of success. At the end of the day (or end of our lives), it’s the meaningful relationships in our lives and positive impact we have had on others that stay with us. The current reality we live in now underscores what the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest, longitudinal study (80 years+!), has shown –that care for self and care for others is fundamental to a joyful and meaningful life.

Yet we spend most of our waking moments on an autopilot course to “success.” We are awake, but not awake. We forget that we are in command of how we define success and how to achieve it. We forget the power of our own outlook on what it means to have success. While some of us are glass-half-full and others glass-half-empty, reclaiming control over our own outlook isn’t about being ignorant and cluelessly optimistic. Even for those of us who are more inclined to realism and pessimism, shifting our outlook on what success means to us as different individuals can help us live our best selves. Expressing daily gratitude, extending a kind hand, and practicing outward and inward compassion can boost our happiness tank and by doing so, we may find that we have achieved our own brilliant, unapologetic definition of success.

Let’s take a lesson from the elders and the youngsters who at the sunset or thresholds of their lives reject the treadmill to embrace and discover the treasures of the untrodden trails of the wilderness.

  • Acknowledge the suckiness

Shifting our perspective on the world to a more positive one doesn’t mean ignoring the bad stuff. Sometimes, things are just crappy. When we try to pretend that “it’s not so bad,” we’re simply in denial. The more we try and push down the truth, the bigger a monster we create. By acknowledging it for what it is – crappy, we can better befriend the negative and turn it into our ally. Resilience researcher Lucy Hone speaks of this ability to face reality fundamental to finding strength and meaning, even in the midst of horrific circumstances.

  • Suspend comparisons

We might be sick of the term, “keeping up with the Joneses,” and the Jones are probably tired of hearing it, too. Yet we all do it to some degree. Instagram makes it too easy, and Facebook makes it impossible not to. Most of us recognize that many of the curated photos of fancy travel shots and blissful couples and unreal yoga poses often hide a more complex and nuanced reality. The more we compare ourselves to these airbrushed versions of the Jones, the more we become dependent on external validation, the harder we try, and the more we fail. The secret is this: the Jones will always have more than you. Comparing your success to someone else’s will keep your mindset stuck in an endless pursuit of emptiness.

  • Count your contributions

Don’t forget to express gratitude. Many of us never seem to “make it” because the goal of success, as defined by someone else, is a shifting goalpost. We jump over one hurdle, only to immediately look for the next hurdle, never pausing to appreciate the hurdle we just overcame. Forgetting to appreciate what we have keeps us on an external chase. Researchers have observed that those who spend each day giving thanks can increase their sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Extending saying thanks is also identifying our contribution, which reminds us of our agency. Whatever it is, appreciating what you have and why may remind you to step back, pause, and smile at the little gifts you receive each day. Being grateful can help us recognize what is most important to us in the pursuit towards our own definition of success.

Extending kindness and understanding to ourselves and others can rewire the brain to a more gentle and confident understanding of what success means to you. And open up the possibility of a life full of joy.