How to Define Success for Yourself So You End Up Happy

Many people think of rich people when they think of the world success. But after discovering many depressed rich people, I realized that wasn’t a solid definition of success. Some people have more money than can ever spend, but they hate what they do — or they’re just disengaged with their work, finding no meaning or purpose in it. All those possessions turn to ash in their hands, just like with Captain Barbossa, from a happiness perspective thanks to the biological effects of the hedonic treadmill.

So then, should success be defined as someone who is happy? We’re getting closer to the mark, but I know happy, poor people who still struggle more than they deserve to because they lack money.

And having all this money is cool, but many wealthy, successful people also struggle with never having enough. At first, it seems like a good thing, but if they approach this “never enough” perspective with a corrosive attitude, it can eat away at them, like a hole that can never fill. The person who says he’ll be happy when he obtains one million dollars doesn’t feel happy when he achieves it, so he strives for ten million, thinking it will solve his issues. But the truth is that it won’t and he’ll always be chasing more.

It’s much better to define realistically what’s enough for your well-being. I personally have defined $150,000 a year net as more than enough to be happy forever. I can buy anything I want within reason. Your amount may be different. But notice how mine isn’t some ridiculous, unmeasurable amount like $7 million. I’ve mathematically counted out the expenses and savings I’d want with my dream life.

Alright, then what about someone who is rich, happy, and has a calling that they get meaning from. Now, we’re getting somewhere. But we’re still missing something.

There are people with those three criteria, but they never have enough free time to spend with their children (Quincy Jones’s documentary on Netflix is a good example). That said, too much free time with no plan or aim can be bad. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow and a top researcher on engagement and happiness, discovered through research that the period that people feel most disengaged is on the weekends when they have nothing to do since they don’t have a plan or work to stay in a flow state.

Okay, so success is having all of the above, plus lots of free time that you choose to spend with loved ones. Alright, but what about health? Tony Robbins often tells the story of how he went to see Cirque du Soleil with his child. He discovered that he was sitting next to one of the richest men of Canada. The problem was this man needed two seats to sit down since he was so obese.

My point isn’t that success has to be complex. I’m saying success is often oversimplified.

We’re getting somewhere though. We’re almost done. So we’ve now concluded that the definition of success should be someone who is happy, healthy, has enough time to spend with loved ones, rich, has enough, and has a life with meaning and flow.

Other than that, success can be defined on your own terms. Society and cultures have shaped success for you, so that you often assume that’s what success is without ever questioning it. There are various categories of success out there. It’s your decision to question and accept which matter to you. They include:

  • Spirituality
  • Health & Nutrition
  • Achieving Your Dreams
  • Happiness, Independent of Wealth
  • Wealth
  • Relationships – Dating, Friends, or Family
  • Contribution
  • Meaning & Purpose
  • Enjoying What You Do (Your Passion)

Here’s Warren Buffett’s definition of success (and happiness).

In other interviews, he defines it as having the people you love and want to love you to love you when you die. Warren is one of the richest people in the world, so he knows a lot of rich people who have failed in their personal life by burning a lot of bridges. Despite all the money they’ve made, no one loves them or would go to their funeral.

Define life on your terms. Be open-minded and acknowledge other perspectives and see if the trade-offs and benefits are worth defining certain things as “success.” Asian immigrant parents often point to helping out the family, giving back to parents, and getting a high-paying job as success. Sure, giving back some to parents who sacrificed their lives to invest in you makes sense. Some children are fine with that. But others have extreme Asian parents that demand too much from them: large sums of recurring payment once they get a job or a soul-sucking job with no work-life balance that offers the status that the parents can brag about.

It’s up to you to draw the line. But assess all factors. Acknowledge you can be wrong in your initial assessment and gather information from multiple perspectives.

You don’t have to do things just because you’re good at it. Just because someone is extremely gifted at chess or math, doesn’t mean you should force them to pursue it as their parent.

The most successful people had a number of things align to succeed. They were PASSIONATE about what they did but also had a great talent and great work ethic. Examples include Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs.

You could be really good at ironing clothes.. that doesn’t mean you iron clothes for a living.

Try new things.

Experience new things.

Strive for new things and goals.

If you’re not qualified yet, learn.

Learn what you need in order to be qualified or get there, and GET IT.

If you want to be a Director of Marketing or CEO and you don’t know how, take out a number of people to coffee who are in that field and LEARN how they are doing it and what you need.

If that means internships, volunteering, or years of experience, get it.

Elon Musk wanted to go to space, so he read books in rocket science.

Hiring or working with someone who loves what they do is a fundamental element of success.

People think that successful, wealthy people “found their passion” and therefore never “worked a day in their life.”

They think that because they found something they loved doing that they are lazy or have always found work easy because they enjoyed it so much.

Consider this quote from the billionaire John Paul DeJoria:

“Successful people do what unsuccessful people don’t want to do.”

John’s life is a great example of this. He was willing to put in the work that no one was willing to. He went through numerous phases of homelessness and having to raise a child in his early twenties.

There was a famous essay written by Albert E.M. Gray

The basic idea behind it is that the most important trait he found after studying successful people was that they were willing to do the things that other people were not willing to do in order to succeed: work longer hours, work smarter, volunteer for low-class tasks, go the extra mile, spend extra time practicing, and so on.

Rather than this idea that successful people never had to do anything they didn’t want to, it seems that a successful people will exert the willpower to do things most people wouldn’t be bothered to do.

Fortunately, science has shown that willpower works like a muscle: it can exhaust within a day if you overwork it, but it can also be trained over time to handle more.

This means two major things: 

  1. Train your willpower daily like a muscle so that it becomes stronger over time.
  2. Protect yourself daily from unnecessary will-power inducing decisions (like resisting the temptation of freshly baked cookies or driving past a row of fast-food restaurants on your way home), especially at the end of the day when your willpower is most depleted. This will help you make better decisions and protect yourself from stupid decisions.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” ― Maya Angelou

For some people, success is simply about settling down with a great partner and having a family with a white picket fence. I respect other people’s definitions of success because we’re all different. My definition is very different. I may want to settle down one day, but success during my current stage of life involves doing stuff so I don’t regret it on my deathbed, which includes travelling the world.

Pat Flynn created a great test called the Airport Test in his book Will It Fly? 

The test was inspired by business people who would tell him that they’ve achieved their dream income but still feel depressed because they’ve chosen a business they dislike. In Pat’s words, they put their ladder on the wrong building.

Imagine that you’re at the airport five years from today, and you bump into a good friend you haven’t seen in years. He asks how life has been going, and you respond by saying, “Life couldn’t be better because….”

Your job in this exercise is to fill in what you say next after “because.” Don’t limit yourself to what you think is possible or impossible. The exercise wants you to be free, imaginative, and create your dream life. Pick from the categories I mentioned earlier. Think about it. And define your dream life. Once you have, write it down on paper so you can see it everyday. Then, take your first step to get it.

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By Will Chou

I am the the founder of this site and I am grateful you are here to be part of this awesome community. I help hard-working Asian American Millennials get rich doing work they love.

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