It was 2008 and the very height of the infamous stock market crash was my reality. I was ten years old and I was too young at the time to understand the details surrounding the event. However, I was painfully aware of the toll it had inflicted upon my parents. I remember when my dad first lost his job and the abhorrent bag of mixed emotions that followed. I remember hearing my parents arguing and crying over money in the early hours of the morning. My mom would tell me that everything was OK while struggling to hold back tears. It was during this time that I decided to myself that, no matter what the future would bring, I would become successful. I would earn enough money to never go hungry, never live in fear, and never become slave to the grueling paycheck. This state of financial inadequacy broke one’s back, confined one’s mind, and burdened the soul. So much stress, heartache, and misery resulted from such an evil. I was only ten, however I vowed to myself I would never become a slave to money and would become financially successful whatever it took.
Fast forward another ten years and my mindset had endured and morphed into an aggregate personal ethos. Throughout grade school, I spent my time building businesses and working for myself. I told myself that I was destined for success. I prided myself on my work ethic and my confidence in the future soared ever high. Looking back, my demeanor clearly appears haughty in retrospect, yet, my mantra was of the purest intentions—albeit perhaps promoting a high underlying degree of egoism. In my idealistic future, I would become affluent and ensure financial security for myself and family. This mindset would remain unchallenged up until shortly after my twentieth birthday. Through a stroke of luck or perhaps some unknown intervention, an investment I had made several months prior yielded return profits over 40 times initial principal. This occurrence had an undeniably massive effect on my viewpoint of money and what I considered to be “success”. For the first few weeks after acquiring my newfound proceeds, I was elated and could scarcely believe my luck. As the kid who had always dreamed of financial prosperity, there was no greater manifestation. However, this state of elevated happiness could not last forever. I learned the hard way that money alone cannot bring contentment and subsequently entered into a period of deep depression lasting months.
From this experience, I finally understood that money cannot bring true lasting contentment. My existing predisposed views on money and wealth were challenged to the core. Most curiously, my very definition of success became altered and molded into something I believe is much more accurate and sustainable with reality. I realized money is yet an enabler and the importance many place upon it can often lie unfounded. Money can allow one great freedom and independence in life, however sometimes the poorest among us hold the secret to fulfillment the wealthy continually fail to attain. It is human nature to always strive for more. We want to be richer, smarter, and more accomplished people. Society defines success as attainment in one or more of these areas. A hard working doctor, cunning venture capitalist, or Nobel Prize winning scientist is the very definition of success, is that not obvious? I would have agreed with this conclusion for the vast majority of my life. However, after experiencing my own small degree of this “success”, I no longer view this conventional definition as wholly accurate. Without delving into deeper ideology or esoteric philosophical theory, I can best describe my viewpoint in a simple diagram:
In this theory known as the “Hedonic Treadmill”, both good and bad events in life cause a temporary increase or decrease in happiness. However, after time, the euphoria or dysphoria from this event tapers off and we eventually return to a set happiness resting point. One of the problems with any financial, academic, or personal achievement is these successes create short term euphoria but can never bring lasting happiness or contentment. For example, becoming a medical doctor is certainly an achievement. However, after attaining this goal, over time you will become accustomed to the lifestyle, salary, and minutiae. Being a MD once may have sounded glamorous and enviable, now it is simply your accustomed way of life. Many high performers realize over time that despite how lofty their ambition is, after achieving the target and surpassing the euphoria spike, their set level of happiness remains relatively constant.
After stating the aforementioned theory and relation of success to happiness, you may wonder how this ties into the theme of defining your own success. Simply put, society puts an extreme amount of emphasis on financial, academic, and career success. There is certainly merit to this emphasis, however in terms of achieving contentment, these items do not truly fare better than anything else. Even with a billion dollar net worth, if you are not happy, what is the point of living life? There is an explanation why many celebrities who are by definition “successful” in the eyes of society, commit suicide or live unfulfilled lives. There is no single secret to happiness and money, power, fame or anything else is not the answer. I am certain many readers will think at this point “Money may not bring happiness to you, however if I had a million dollars I would certainly be more happy than I am now.”. There is partial truth to this belief, however remember the Hedonic Treadmill and recognize the temporary and finite existence of this pleasure. Surely everyone has eyed a new sports car or expensive pair of shoes and imagined all the pleasure this object would bring into their lives. However, after finally purchasing this item, it is only natural to lose the initial state of euphoria over time and the item will no longer provide the pleasure it once could. Furthermore, the Hedonic Treadmill does not only occur with material items. It occurs with everything in life.
With this said, what is important is defining your own definition of success. What brings you happiness should be the focus of your life regardless if it matches anyone else’s definition. Many people believe society’s definition of success is the secret to happiness, once again, it is not that simple. If what makes you truly most happy in life is working as a cashier in a grocery store, that can be your own definition of success. You do not have to become rich to be happy or successful. Because something does not match the majority’s definition is not a good reason not to pursue it. I think someone who is homeless can be much more happy than a Wall Street investment banker—contentment requires more than material goods. If becoming a middle manager in a corporation is your definition of success, work until you reach that goal. If financial independence is your definition of success, go for it. Each person is different and unique in what they want for their life.
Society’s definition of success is not a “one-size-fits-all” path for contentment. We as humans don’t all require the same thing to be happy. Finite resources such as fiat money have become part of the definition of success as society defines it due to it being a coveted commodity by a large majority of the population. However, we have to realize money in itself or any other desired object cannot equate to true contentment, the world is more complex than a singular element being capable of fulfilling such a complex need. You can build your house out of gold, drive a diamond-plated Lamborghini, and wear a $2 million dollar Patek, however you can still very well be deeply unhappy. Society will look at this person and believe they are extremely successful, indeed by their definitions they are. However, when you recognize the shallowness and shortcomings of this conventional perspective, you will realize the importance of defining your own success.