“Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might be successful.”
I’m sure most of you, like me, would find such a scripture discouraging and irritating and false instead of inspiring and hopeful and true. But sometimes I look around me and wonder: why do we as Mormons seem to buy so completely into the notion that we must be “successful” in order to be happy? Shouldn’t the fullness of the gospel—the knowledge of where we came from and what our potential really is—keep us more centered and serene than so many of us actually are?
We all know that wealth and beauty and fame often serve as poor substitutes for joy. It’s easy to look around and see evidence of rich, beautiful, wildly popular people who are also miserable. Many of us have even (kinda) conquered our desires to be the wealthiest, prettiest, most universally adored member of whatever community we’re a part of. But what about other kinds of success? Success in a career. Success as a parent. Success as a Mormon (whatever that’s supposed to look like). Success as a student. Success as a homemaker. Each of these examples are all laudable goals, certainly much more praiseworthy than searching after money or external beauty or popularity.
Still, I wonder, does the attainment of any of these “laudable” goals actually translate into an increase of happiness or joy in and of itself? The longer I live, the more I become convinced that my personal happiness isn’t actually connected to outward “success” in any of these areas. And the longer I parent, the more I realize that spinning myself (and my children) silly to make sure that my they experience this kind of “success” over and over won’t necessarily translate into joy, either. I see successful students who are constantly overwhelmed by others’ expectations, reaching for that next “A” in the way an addict might search after a fix. I see successful business people who sacrifice time and peace and sanity on the altar of the next big promotion. I see successful homemakers who spend so much energy keeping a perfect house or preparing excellent meals that they’ve lost the ability to relax and enjoy their families. I see successful writers and artists who’ve become slaves to the “muse,” who are pining away for the next jolt of adrenaline that accompanies the applause or great reviews they’re hoping to receive.
But it’s good to work hard. It’s good to get impressive grades. It’s good to be rewarded in our careers. It’s good to have a clean house. It’s good to magnify our talents and share them with others. Right? Of course right. So why are so many people who’ve attained these goals not singing from the rooftops with joy?
As I’ve been thinking about happiness and success and how they pertain to both my own life and the lives I’m helping my children create for themselves, I’ve started paying closer attention to people who are really joyful and content. What’s the common denominator? Of course, all of us are naturally predisposed to a certain level of happiness or angst. Studies have shown that up to 50% of our overall happiness level–or our happiness “set point”–is genetically determined. But if genes account for only half our happiness, what can we do about the other 50%?
Through a little bit of reading and a lot of observation, this is what I’ve noticed: happy people have a sense of control over their own lives, happy people are brave, and happy people work hard to maintain their connections with others. Sometimes, this combination of traits might lead naturally to outward success. For example, a talented dancer makes a choice to pursue her art form and works hard; she’s brave and dares to try out for challenging roles; she’s good at networking and maintaining connections and other people like to work with her. Before she knows it, she’s reached the pinnacle of her profession. And she’s happy and satisfied. But say the exact same person comes into the world, but instead of being born with the genes of a dancer, her talents are less likely to put her in the spotlight. Let’s say this same woman isn’t a dancer any more, but she’s always loved kids. She chooses to have the number of children in her family that feels right to her (lots of kids or a few); she’s brave, and parents these children in the way that SHE knows is best, rather than being swayed by the opinions of others; she maintains close friendships with a few women in her neighborhood who she knows she can trust, and because she is kind and thoughtful, these women are kind and thoughtful to her in return. Not everybody in her neighborhood or ward knows her name, and she’s not invited to every party, but she’s happy and fulfilled. We all know women like this, don’t we?
So, while I know many outwardly successful people who are happy, I also know a bunch of quiet, seemingly-average people who are happy as well. But most satisfied people I know have claimed the lives they want for themselves and are living them productivity, no matter what that life looks like on the outside, and these people aren’t nearly as motivated by applause as the less-happy folk.
There are times, when I allow fear to rule me instead of faith, that I find myself worrying too much over the “successes” in my or my family’s life. I allow myself to listen to the lie that my child’s perceived lack of star power in the classroom or on the baseball field must inevitably lead to a less-happy life. When I’m thinking that way, I sign them up for too many extracurricular activities. I get mad at them for having bad handwriting. I orchestrate play dates with “popular” kids in the neighborhood who I know in my heart aren’t really my kids’ type. And when I allow myself to listen to the lie that *I* must be a certain type of Mormon woman in order to be perceived as successful, I say yes to things I should say no to. I get caught up in others’ opinions of me and spend less time on relationships with those who DO love me unconditionally. I clean when I’d rather be reading.
I know that I am happiest, and my children are happiest, when we are being ourselves. Paradoxically, I think we feel the most joy when we’re not focusing on success for its own sake . . . and that joy (somehow) leads to the very success we didn’t know we were searching for. That particular success—be it outward and applauded, or inward and satisfying—doesn’t feel like a burden that must be maintained, but instead seems like an integral and satisfying aspect of the real lives we’ve chosen for ourselves. I forget this all the time, though. I forgot it just today (oh, the particular pains and joys of parent teacher conferences). So I’m writing it down now, and hoping that all of you can help add to my understanding of what makes a happy life.
How do you find joy in your life? What are you doing to help lay the foundation for your children to lead joyful lives? What have you learned as you’ve searched after “success” (or when it’s found you unexpectedly)?