So the Athletics World Championships recently finished, and to the surprise of almost everyone in the world, Usain Bolt got a bronze medal. With headlines reading “Bolt settles for bronze” and “Bolt loses last race”, the reaction in much of the mainstream media highlights how much we value success. Winning it would seem, is the main event.
And on the surface at least, there’s nothing wrong with success and ambition. Having a good work ethic and goals to strive for are an important part of our lives. Without it many of us would feel lost and bereft of purpose. However do we put too much emphasis on success, and most importantly, does it make us happy?
The answer will mostly lie in our own personal concept of success, and how deeply it’s connected with our own values and beliefs. If we value a system where money is the most important thing in life, then that becomes our goal. But if we value peace, stability, integrity, happiness and contentment, it presents an entirely different form of evaluating what success means, and what makes us happy.
Does our happiness influence our view of success?
The study at the South Korean University researched 106 undergraduates who began by completing a Subjective Happiness Scale – a series of four questions that are designed to measure how happy you are as a person.
The same group of people was subsequently asked what was most effective method for measuring a country’s Olympic success, the total number of gold medals, or the total of all medals received. The research found that individuals who scored higher on the happiness test, were more likely to opt for the total number of all medals achieved.
The simple premise is that happy people savor the little things in life, and the celebration of these smaller successes that are arguably more attainable, and occur more frequently, are viewed as a success.
The “unhappy” group (represented by those with a winning mentality) were striving for more intense experiences, a win at all cost attitude where anything but the very best was deemed unsatisfactory. There are obvious benefits to this, namely the pursuit of perfection and intense focus, however when we focus on outcomes alone we can often lose sight of the journey, and lose the appreciation for the hard work and dedication that those who didn’t win have sacrificed.
And the last point is an important one to consider. Throughout evolution our success has been largely dependent on cooperation, and the concept of winners and loser is a relatively new social construct. The concept of “success” was initially a group objective – working together to achieve a common goal. From childcare, to hunting, to planting crops and supporting the sick, collaboration was a necessity to survive, and is arguably a more realistic reflection of human activity throughout time and across cultures.
Cooperation vs. competition
This relatively new concept of winning is arguably what compels people to focus on their personal achievements in order to validate their worth. What is my value if they don’t get a gold medal? What is my value if I don’t get a big house? However the satisfaction of succeeding through cooperation has been be linked with emotional maturity and strong personal identity, with research indicating that children’s achievement levels are superior when they cooperate, rather than compete.
So by this rationale, if we take more time to celebrate the little wins in life, and make the conscious decision to collaborate more, then everything should be perfect? We can live a happy blissful existence where we fulfill our goals in life with a skip and a smile. But is this a realistic and sustainable goal, and is perpetual happiness actually good for us anyway?
If we have or strive for too much happiness, we can run the risk of becoming selfish, obnoxious and difficult to relate to, and too much optimism can lead us to lose touch with reality, forcing us to make poor decisions that can impact our overall success.
The key is perhaps is not to strive blindly for more of everything – more happiness, more success – but rather to better understand what’s important to us, and how do we make the best choices in order to achieve that particular goal. And it’s these choices that aren’t always easy to make. Change, at times, can be terrifying.
However by acknowledging that life is full of disappointments, it can become easier to confront things head-on, learning from life’s lessons as you go and using any negativity to either motivate or adjust your own behavior. This ability to adapt to a particular situation, and chose the best course of action is often referred to as psychological flexibility.
Psychological and emotional flexibility are consistently mentioned in resilience, emotion regulation and stress management, all integral to achieving what we want from life. Put simply it’s the ability to implement plan B when it’s needed.
Considering it’s almost impossible to eliminate negative feelings entirely, the goal is to be flexible in the moment, noticing the choices available to us and accepting that a certain amount of fear and doubt may be necessary in order to achieve the things we want in life.
This ability to shift mental states as circumstances demand turns out to be a fundamental aspect of our overall wellbeing. Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found that in the aftermath of 9/11, the most flexible people living in New York City recovered quicker, and enjoyed greater psychological and physical health than their less adaptable counterparts.
Whether it’s through mindfulness or yoga, having the ability to be in touch with the present moment can give us the objectivity and the freedom to make better decisions. By accepting all experiences without judgment, we can become less rigid in our emotional responses and choose the best course of action that will help us to achieve our goals, whatever they may be.
The truth is that happiness is likely to be a combination of joyful experiences, occasional sadness, a sense of purpose, collaboration, belonging and psychological flexibility. Success alone isn’t a guaranteed path to personal fulfillment; the key perhaps, is to enjoy the present moment and the journey, irrespective of the outcome.