The crucial thing to know about success is that success is first and foremost an emotion.

We strive for success because of the positive feelings that we associate with it. Nobody wants to be rich-but-miserable or famous-but-detested. When we imagine ourselves successful, we imagine ourselves happy; we imagine ourselves with feelings of triumph, exhilaration, mastery, contentment, even jubilation. The feeling of wellbeing that we associate with success is paramount, not the external factors that we assume to be its defining attributes.

We’ve all seen the beer commercials where everyone is having great fun at the party and we are led to believe that the chosen brand of beer is the cause. We know that beer alone does not bring happiness though, don’t we? Similarly, we know that the superficial trappings of success are not really what we’re seeking. Yet, as with the beer commercials, we allow ourselves to be told otherwise.

The distinction between experiencing the inner feeling of success and meeting the prevailing culture’s external criteria for identifying success is essential because if we are vacillating between the two we won’t really know what we want, and if we don’t know what we want we are unlikely to attain it. If we always think of success as an emotion, we can keep our eyes on the prize. The essence of real success is going about our activities moment-by-moment and day-by-day with a sense of joy. Real success is inner peace.

Here’s an experiment. List a few of history’s most successful people. Read a brief biography of each one and ask yourself if they were happy. How many “great” men were also contented men? What’s so great about being great? The greatest geniuses usually never accomplished their ultimate goals; the most powerful leaders were either deposed or lived in constant fear of betrayal; the wealthiest individuals struggled with their spouses and children; highly revered religious leaders wrestled with profound doubt and often succumbed to the evils of narcissism and narrow mindedness. How few examples there have been of world-famous men or women who combined exceptional accomplishment with personal contentment. How much success is there among the successful?

Take the Shortcut

Why not take a short cut? Why not go straight to the heart of the matter by aiming directly for the feeling of success instead of the superficial trappings?

The struggle for worldly success can be counter productive, not only because of the stress involved and the time consumed but also because of the ethical dilemmas that it engenders. If we value getting ahead too much we easily end up hurting people along the way. Most of us are not sociopaths and we therefore cannot willfully hurt others without also inflicting wounds on our own sense of self-value. Moral failure is too high a price to pay for success. It is self-defeating. Success that is accompanied by guilt and shame, no matter how well those might be concealed or suppressed, is not really success at all. I firmly believe that most of us cannot be happy unless we live virtuous lives.

But how do you find inner peace, an ongoing feeling of joie de vivre? In the past, the task of fostering inner peace was left to religion, which meant that it tended to require that the individual subscribe to some unverifiable dogma or surrender part of his or her autonomy to a spiritual leader. In the past several decades, psychologists have tried to analyze happiness more objectively and to construct testable theories. Carol Ryff, for instance, breaks wellbeing down into six factors:

1. Self-Acceptance
2. Personal Growth
3. Purpose in Life
4. Positive Relations With Others
5. Environmental Mastery
6. Autonomy

It’s worth spending a few moments to consider these six elements individually and how they are present or absent in one’s own life in order to grasp the wisdom of this model, which is only one, doubtlessly imperfect, example of the ways in which psychology can illuminate this topic.

If we think of success in the conventional, superficial, sense of the word, it is clear that it only addresses a few of the six factors, and those only partially. On the other hand, it is easy to see that an ordinary person — a schoolteacher, a mechanic, a baker – can be a genuine success within this model.

Power is an Amplifier

Let’s return for a moment to society’s notion of success. It comprises three elements: wealth, fame and influence. These three are interconvertible like elements in an equation: fame can be cashed in for wealth and influence; influence can be used to create fame and wealth, etc. We could squeeze them all into one essence and call it power.

Power is morally neutral. A good person can use power to do good things. Power enables us to amplify our influence. But when we label the traditional, superficial conception of success as power it keeps us aware of the danger involved. If we call power success, it sounds rather harmless, as if there is no downside, but we all know that power without wisdom, without empathy, without a clear vision of the essence of wellbeing, is the most dangerous thing imaginable. To seek power without first seeking wisdom is an enormous folly, and yet with all our promotion of “success”, it is exactly what we encourage young people to do. This creates many problems for our society. That kind of success has failed.

What is success in the ultimate sense of the word? In its most comprehensive interpretation, success encompasses both personal wellbeing and power.

Let’s take the wealthiest man in the world, Bill Gates, and let us assume for the sake of experiment that he accomplishes all six of Ryff’s criteria. Will he then be absolutely happy? I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates won’t be absolutely happy until all disease, poverty and conflict have been eradicated from the planet, no matter how many psychologists he might consult. Let us now substitute a fictional character, I’ll call him Mr. Hedges, who has all of Mr. Gates’ prosperity and none of his concern for humanity. Could Mr. Hedges be perfectly happy, happier than Mr. Gates? Surely, a man like Mr. Hedges would be missing out of a lot in life. Mr. Hedges’ contentment would lack the pains associated with compassion, but it would also lack depth. Most of us would sooner emulate Mr. Gates. Granted, there are a few theologians who will tell us that compassion without suffering is possible, but they’d find it easier to sell me a bridge in Brooklyn or a whorehouse in Paradise.

I would be skeptical of anyone who is able to maintain a state of absolute bliss while this nation is going through its current moral crisis. I like to think that even the Buddha would be perturbed. This is the dilemma of the bodhisattva: an individual who lacks perfect contentment as a result of compassion seems preferable to an individual who preserves perfect contentment but lacks compassion. Absolute success is not attainable because perfect wellbeing includes the wellbeing of others.

we can still aspire to a profound, albeit imperfect, feeling of day-to-day
contentment while living constructive lives that contribute to the world. I
even think that we are morally obliged to do so.