Take a minute to think about how "successful" you are.
Now think about what criteria you used to evaluate yourself. Some people might look to their bank account. Others to various degrees they've collected. Many would look to their relationships with a spouse, their children, their friends. Some might even open their closet and look to their collection of designer shoes, bags and watches.
Do I consider myself "successful?" I do. I've created a pretty awesome business; I’m well respected in my field; and I have multiple degrees. I love my home, and my relationships are strong.
But on the other hand, I don’t own my home. I sold my condo when I divorced. I’m also overweight, which doesn’t exactly paint a picture of success -- especially for a woman. Oh, and I quit my PhD 93 pages into my dissertation.
To some people, I might not look like a smashing success.
Related: 7 Essential Habits of Happier People
What do we mean by "success" anyway?
My friend and colleague Ryan Coelho says the word “success” is like the word "God." If you ask 100 people what it means, every one of them will have a different answer. He’s right.
On one level, we understand that real success is about happiness. We know this. We’re not shallow and superficial. And yet…
And yet most of us (ahem, even those of us who help people get happy for a living) easily confuse success for happiness -- at least until we wise up.
Look up the word “success” and you’ll find a definition like, “the attainment of wealth, position, honors or the like,” and synonyms like “accomplishment," “prosperity” and “fame." I have nothing against the word success or even its traditional definition. It’s just a word, after all. But let’s call it what it is. It’s a benchmark for performance and attainment -- a measuring stick.
Tangible metrics are important and have their place, particularly in the business world. But if you’re looking for personal fulfillment, it’s not likely that traditional measures of success are going to get you there.
As a society, we've come to believe that success -- stuff and status -- is the Yellow Brick Road. Follow it, and we'll most certainly arrive at the Emerald City. While there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting stuff, status, wealth or acclaim, it’s a mistake to assume that they pave the way to happiness and fulfillment.
"Success" is thrown around so frequently and in such varied contexts that we've forgotten what it really means. It's vague, all encompassing, a catch-all. Success dangles in front of our eyes the things we think will make us happy -- status and stuff.
But we don’t actually want all that. What we want is the way we think the stuff and status is going to make us feel. Big difference. Success, when you boil it down, seems to be about what we think will make us happy. It’s a lure, shiny and seductive -- but there’s a hook: You can do everything right in the pursuit of attaining traditional success, but happiness and personal fulfillment are not guaranteed.
Personally, at the height of my “success,” I was pretty miserable. I’m not saying there’s an inverse relationship between success and happiness, just that there’s not necessarily a positive one. They're two different things.
A popular formula for success and happiness that's guaranteed to fail is the following: When I have (insert measure of success here) I'll be happy. It will fail because one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.
How you personally define success and how you personally define happiness is entirely up to you. But recognize the difference.
Wishing you happiness -- and success.