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Happiness and Success in America

Are success and happiness the same thing?

Famously, John Lennon once said:

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

John Lennon certainly grew up to be successful as a member of The Beatles, one of the most legendary bands of all time. Touring the world, selling over 65 million albums, pictured on the covers of endless magazines and posters. But just because Lennon was successful, does that automatically mean he was happy?

As I enter my fourth and final year of college, I can’t help but search for the answer to this question. A daunting world filled with cubicles, taxes, and 9-5 hours lies ahead, or at least it does for many people. For those of us still in school and not yet full on ‘adulting,’ as I like to call it, there really only seems to be one option: find a good job and work hard to become successful.

Presumably, the definition of success for the majority includes a cushy stack of money to sit upon, a respectable job title, and a comfortable lifestyle. According to Dictionary.com, success is defined as, “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.” So I wasn’t too far off. This is the definition of success that so many of us have subconsciously grown accustomed to.

As small children, we drew big houses in crayon with large backyards, maybe decorated with a swimming pool, treehouse, or firepit. Even in our innocence, we had been conditioned to believe that a good and happy life would mean being able to afford a surplus of material items. Sure, we couldn’t have put it into those exact words at six years old, but we knew that the cool kids with the newest toys seemed to be having the best time.

Nearing the end of high school, we were motivated to make it into the best colleges possible; best meaning the most well known and well ranked. If we could make it into a college of such a high standard, then our high school careers would have been a success. Our studying and effort and hard work will have paid off because after graduating from our well known and well ranked college, we would make good money in a good job. Therefore, by our dictionary definition, we would be successful.

And that’s just about the spot where I stand right now: transitioning from college student to a bill paying, 40 hours a week working adult, searching for whatever a ‘successful’ career and future looks like. But what exactly does success look like, and will that life make me happy? The more that I think about what I want to do, as a writer or photographer, as videographer or storyteller, and compare it to any other person I know, the more I’m starting to realize that my goals and the goals of others just aren’t comparable. Can a writer even compare their achievements to those of an accountant? Is the work of a novelist the same of a reporter?

After reading an article in Forbes, I stumbled upon a line that put everything into perspective for me: “Define what success means to you… Other people’s success should not be a measurement of our own.” This whole time I’ve been stressing over being ‘successful,’ when really I’ve only been using the Western definition of success: wealth, status, and acquisition of material items. To climb up the corporate ladder and have a nice home with a full bank account is probably the definition of success for most Americans, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

My problem is that my personal definition of success, the more I start to uncover whatever rings true to me, doesn’t fully align with the Western definition of success. Yes, of course I need to make enough money to get by, but I know plenty of people with money who aren’t happy. (Not to say that everyone who has a surplus of money is unhappy.) I fear that the drive for excessive amounts of money and material items will one day block my view, the world’s view, of what is actually important: the family and friends we surround ourselves with, the health of this planet we call home, the bigger picture of what we can do as a people to make this world a better place.

Now I’m not saying that everyone should go rewrite their definition of success, but for those of you who are like me – still trying to get it just right – don’t feel the need to conform to Western society’s definition of success. We create our own definition which we can succeed or fail by. Find what is important to you, and hold it close so that it may guide you for the rest of your life, whether it be work, environmental care, or love. Hold it so close that whatever you decide your success to be will also bring you happiness.

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