Successful but not happy?

“And how can you be successful if you’re not happy?”

I saw this written in an article a few days ago and it pulled me up short.

Throughout my career I have been the less-than-happy recipient of several layoffs. When I lost my job the first time, a fellow job seeker pointed out to me that we use our jobs to define ourselves. For example, “Well, I’m a lawyer and I specialize in contracts.” Sometimes I want to ask people what they “were” when they were 18 (before they became lawyers). Sometimes I want to ask them if they were lawyers when they popped out of the womb.

So, my sense of things is that people define happiness in terms of success and success in terms of work.

As I have said before, I do not think happiness and joy are the same thing, and I think the question above reflects that because the high that comes from a success is relatively short-lived – just like happiness. I know a lot of discontented, unhappy people who are outwardly perceived as successful. I’m not sure anyone asks them if they see themselves as successful – perhaps they don’t see themselves in this light because they are not joyful or contented. Perhaps they aren’t sure.

When I have had times in my life when I was – in my mind, at least – monetarily successful, I did not feel any accompanying contentedness. Mostly, I felt anxious, worrying about when this “undeserved” success would desert me. Others I have met kept scratching that scab, always looking for something else to buy or planning some trip they wanted to take to an exotic place. For some, there is a chronic restlessness for something new, something to give them that next bit of inflatable happiness – if only for a few moments.

On balance, I would not call myself a highly successful businesswoman. I think I am successful in my own right, but I am not someone who is a director or vice president at a corporation or one who makes a lot of money. Some days, because we all need money to live on, I wish I had been more financially successful (by society’s standards) so I could have a more comfortable life. But there are also trade-offs that take me in the direction opposite joy or contentment.

We pay a high price with these trade-offs and I have never been able to convince myself that the price was worth it. (Sometimes it’s hell to hold the unpopular view that there must be something more than wanting.) When that happens, many things loose their price tag. When is it too much to be in a high-level job but miss time passing other experiences that might spell joy? I wonder some days if I am the only person I know who fights the idea of getting up, dressing, going to work, then to an evening meeting of some kind, returning home only to go to bed and then push the repeat button?

Perhaps doing the unpopular thing – even dangerous in today’s economy – of setting limits or saying no threatens livelihood. I honestly don’t know.

What I know more and more as I have crossed the magic line known as 50, is that time really does whiz by much more quickly than it did when I was seven and restless. Now I look up and realize that Christmas was a month ago and wonder what happened to January. So, looking for what brings joy is increasingly important.

My joy for today (so far) has been attending a quiet service at my church early in the morning when the streets of this town were deserted. I could drive up these streets without lots of other cars or more than a few pedestrians. When I left, I could anticipate the spot in the road where it curves up and to the left. I don’t know why I like that. But it seems fun to me to drive that way. I fall into formation with a clump of bicyclists all dressed in their Lance Armstrong attire with their muscular bodies rolling on down the deserted highways. I envy them their freedom, but rejoice that they are out riding.

I love the cold, crisp air and mostly the solitude. My brain is constantly busy with to-do lists and shoulda-woulda-coulda’s. But in the few minutes of silence, nothing deprives me of the sense of harmony that comes to me. I think of it as inner harmony where I can breathe better and marvel, as I always do, at the beauty of the roads I travel – both urban and country; concrete and spiritual. When I allow myself to appreciate or ponder these bits and pieces of life, I know that I am joyful.

I wish you peace.

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One comment on “Successful but not happy?

  1. I think many times when people talk about happiness they are really aiming for a state of euphoria. Euphoria is defined as a state of happiness and well-being usually with no foundation in truth or reality. The truth and reality is that neither the past nor the present, not our jobs nor our families, not a person nor a thing can bring us happiness. Happiness is inside us. Each of us discovers our own happiness. It is not something that can be pursued because it exists all the time inside us. We are looking for the wrong thing. We have mislabeled euphoria as happiness. But true happiness is not an “up.” It is not a “high.” It is not “having fun.” Happiness is contentment. Happiness is not something that is well defined. Happiness is found between the tick and the tock on a clock. It is found in the very, very small things. However, if one is happy, one usually knows it. One cannot look for joy or happiness outside oneself. That is the wrong place. Why? Happiness is a by-product. It is called happiness, because it happens. Just like the expression, “shit happens,” happiness just happens too. But we have to learn to see it.
    Seeing your happiness can be more basic than you think. Sit outside by your favorite tree or steam. Analyze the tree, the stream, the flower. Think about its life functions, how perfect the tree is or how the textures complement each other. Feel the air on your face, analyze how the air feels on your face. Listen to the water, listen to the sounds around you, the people walking by, the wind blowing. Feel the air on your skin. Feel how it expands your lungs. See the sunshine. Feel its warmth. By becoming aware of the moment, you experience true happiness and joy. Do not think of other things, of your job or responsibilities. Do not think of things that have anything to do with you. Happiness is seen when you are completely present in the moment. Happiness happens when you are completely involved in the moment and you forget the past, forget to think about the future. You forget yourself. Instead you become focused on what is happening right now. Being worried about the past or the future or about one’s problems are a form of selfishness. It is human to do so, but by losing one’s self, one becomes happy or joyful. By being selfish, you push happiness away.
    Animals experience happiness because they live in the present unworried about a past or a future. The same is true of small children. However, children begin to worry about their past and present when parents begin to tell them they should start thinking about their past or their future. And the child inside begins to die. An adult is born. One who continues to try to capture that happiness they felt as a child.
    The problem with pursuing something – joy, happiness, a person or a thing – is that the more you pursue something, the more elusive it becomes. You work hard to achieve the thing that you feel will bring you happiness and you may experience momentary euphoria. Then, once again, you go back to feeling unhappy or incomplete. You begin to wonder if you were happy in that moment. You analyze the moment. You dissect the moment. Am I happy? Was I joyful? What could I have done to make myself happy? Was this moment everything I wanted it to be? These questions are selfish. These moments do nothing but set one up for the next step – – looking for the next goal that you think might bring happiness.

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