Success as Joy’s Counterfeit

What if the famous scripture in 2 Nephi 2:25 read this way?

“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)?

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

35 thoughts on “Success as Joy’s Counterfeit

  1. That first scripture was all I needed. This article was great. I’m impressed with how you worded the questions in a non-threatening way and allow the reader to reflect rather than prepare a rebuttal.

    It must be because what you said is true.

    Thanks

  2. I think I’ve always been pre-disposed to a goofy grin on my face, but I’ve found a deeper and more fulfilling kind of happiness in the last couple of years as I’ve learned to let go of a lot of things. I’ve actually found that once I realized how little control I actually had, I was able to stop trying to be in charge of every single factor of my life, and start enjoying what came.

    I am happier now than I’ve ever been, even as I see how my life is less certain and less ‘managed’ than any other time in memory.

    I want my kids to see that happiness doesn’t mean an absence of hardship or struggle, because that’s the lesson I’ve come to see, and by seeing me continue to smile and feel a deep peace in my life even when things are hard, I hope they understand – or at least learn to understand as they move into adulthood.

    There are people I love in my life that are still waiting – waiting for happiness to descend. Waiting for more money, schooling to end, children to grow – whatever. And yet I’ve really learned that for me at least, happiness isn’t inert. It’s dynamic and vibrant and something I choose.

  3. So excellent, Angela. You have reached the pinnacle of success in writing thoughtful blog posts. (There’s your fix for the day!)

    Earlier this week I was replying to an email from someone who wondered why she couldn’t pull herself together and do the impressive things she sees her peers doing. She said her time and energy is consumed by the basic requirements of family life, and that while she sensed great potential within herself, its realization always seemed to be just out of arm’s reach.

    Part of my reply went like this:

    You can’t force yourself to grow, develop, change, evolve, or become. You can only open yourself to what life brings and allow yourself to be taught and to be changed. Whatever your circumstances are, there are lessons embedded that will enable you to become your best self. But this doesn’t have anything to do with outward achievement. The most effective lessons are the ones that seem to set you back; the only success that matters is your success in transcending fear and maintaining peace within yourself. I know that sounds easy for me to say, but I believe it with all my heart. We are our own worst enemies, and we’ll be stuck in dark places until we can come to terms with our particular version of humanity.

  4. Love this post.

    It reminds me of two bishops I had. The MBA-corporate man was a very good bishop due in part to his “skills”. And the sheep rancher bishop who had no skills whatsoever, except that he was a lot like Jesus. I often reflect on these two wonderful bishops. Thanks for giving me more to think about.

  5. It seems to me that the relevant success is not necessarily what we do or accomplish, but that we do it with singleness of heart, for God’s glory, and that we do it as best as we can. Doing housework, homework, reaching out to a friend, can all be acts of the success that we truly need.

    But the world sells us 40-hour work weeks and hour-long commutes, mortgages and iPods and management promotions, more of Babylon and less of Zion. What if we really took Zion seriously?

    Thank you for sharing your insight.

  6. All true and right. Thank you for saying it. But why, oh why, can’t I remember it during the day? It’s almost like I’m addicted to fear.

  7. See? I knew that my Segullah sisters would be chock full of wisdom.

    Isn’t it interesting how our failures or trials tend to teach us more than our successes, like Kathy said? Of course, none of us wants to fail, but there’s something so freeing about accepting our limitations. Justine, I’ve always admired your serenity and centeredness. And terradisienna, I think you hit it on the head: it’s the whys and hows behind the things we do in our life that make all the difference.

    Oh, and I love sheep rancher bishops. They’re the best.

  8. Yes! Yes! Yes! This is such a great post, thank you! I’ve been thinking about these things, trying to put them into words, you’ve done it for me. (better than I could have)

    The world shoves success down our throats so much it is very hard to push that away and realize what our true goals are.

    When the teacher tells me that my son isn’t doing well in school it makes me feel a failure as a parent. But what’s behind that? A lie. A lie that if I’m doing something right all will be successful. That isn’t what life is about so I’m willing to ignore the teacher’s concerns sometimes. My son’s steady progression as a full human being is more important than complete success as a 2nd grader. Yes, success and progression can overlap, but they’re not exclusive (you can progress and be happy without worldly success).

  9. This is an excellent post.

    There is so much to say, but I think that I’ll simply try to answer one of your questions:

    What are you doing to help lay the foundation for your children to lead joyful lives?

    I feel like So much of joy comes from Love. I’ve been struck lately with the phrase, “that you may have joy in your posterity.” (I think that I’ve been thinking this because I’m trying to talk my husband into having one more kid!)…

    I’ve experienced bits and pieces of that joy. Sure, it comes when they succeed. But it also comes when they put their heads in my lap. It comes when they teach a family home evening lesson. It comes when they decide to do something nice for each other. Joy comes to me when they are happy.

    And, as often as I forget it, I recognize that it is true: Success can’t hold a candle to Joy.

    Thanks for the great post!!!

    ps. to actually answer the question: I’m trying to lay the foundation of Christlike love in our home.

  10. In my mind finding joy is being successful. However, it all depends on the definition of success one subscribes to. It is not what we accomplish that informs our notions of success as much as what we personally expect to accomplish.

    The more realistic our goals are and the more closely they match our situation in life the more successful and happy we will be.

  11. I love this post. It seems silly, but I immediately related it to my “success” (or lack of) in writing and blogging. Lately, it seems like the blog world is chock-full of blogging superstars. They’ve got hundreds or thousands of followers, they can practically live off the money they make from their site – in essence, they are the epitome of successful blogging. For a long time, I really, really wanted to be like that. I didn’t view my tiny little blog as worth anything if I couldn’t have hundreds of readers validating my writing.

    It was only when I one day decided to let it go and relax that I found true joy in my writing/blogging. I realized that it was perfectly okay to have an unknown little family blog with only a handful of readers. The important thing, in my mind, is that my kids will be able to go back and read it and get a good sense of their lives and what it was like for me to be their mother.

    Again, it’s kind of silly to relate this to blogging. But this has also taught me that I need to just let go and relax in other areas of my life, too. Very good article!

  12. Thank you Angela, thank you.

    And Kathy, I don’t remember writing that email to you? ;)

    I remember the first time I got an article published– The HIGH! But it didn’t last so I needed to write another one and another…Photography is the same way– chasing one perfect photo after another.

    Right now I’m in a fallow stage. I’ve promised my children and my husband that I won’t take on outside projects. I won’t lie; that’s hard for me. But I’m also reveling in my children, in being available for them, in sharing their daily happiness.

    This is a post to read and reread. And I plan on reading every one of the comments as well.

  13. I’ve been thinking about how to find happiness a lot recently. Thanks for giving me more to think about. I really like your ideas – especially in regard to your children. Thanks again!

  14. jendoop, part of the reason I wrote this post in the first place was because I had a kind of rough parent teacher conference yesterday, and I walked away feeling like a failure (for not being the mother of a child who’s neat and focused and good at math), and I also ended up playing the “what if” game in regards to this child’s future. If this child isn’t particularly good at school, well then this child is doooooomed!

    Then I backed myself off the cliff and tried to remember two things: 1. I’m a good mom, not because my child is a super star, but because I love her and she loves me and we accept each other in spite of our failings. 2. Academic success is NOT always the best route to happiness. Just because I was good in school doesn’t mean that my kids have to be in order to be happy. Some of the happiest people I know didn’t get the best grades . . . and my child is happy most of the time. When she’s unhappy is when she’s inordinately stressed about academic expectations and feeling like a failure.

    It’s my job as her mom to help her be happy, not to orchestrate her life so she constantly appears successful. When she’s happy, she’ll be better able to find her own kind of success.

    And Catania, I loved what you said about joy in family life coming from love, from having the spirit in our home. Cutting down on some of the frantic “achieving” that we think we must impose on our kids in order to be good moms allows the space and down time for the spirit to flourish.

    Natalie, it’s not at all silly to relate it to blogging. Most of us are motivated, at least in part, by validation–it’s a natural human need. But Michelle’s so right too: the “high” we get from any particular success dissipates rather quickly, and then we might find ourselves running in circles, chasing even higher highs, and still unsatisfied. It’s so tricky.

  15. You know, honestly I’ve not really thought about this. But in reading your post, what kept coming back to me is this. “Was Jesus happy?” He served, he loved, he had little, and not everybody loved him, lots of people hated him. But do you think that he wondered, “why don’t they like me” and felt bad about it. Sometimes when I think about Jesus I picture him as, sad and sorrowful, but now as I think about it, I think he was full of joy and he wanted others to feel that joy.
    My point is, this is another thing that we can learn from Christ through his example.

  16. Happiness and joy have been on my mind a lot. It’s kind of like money and health…you don’t pay too much attention when you have enough, but when something’s amiss in one of those areas, it’s almost all you think about.

    I’ve always been a happy person, an optimistic person, and I’ve loved being labeled that way. I’m struggling now to understand how I have managed to stay happy through hard challenges, because I no longer seem to fit the label anymore. We’ve found out that our sweet and wonderful and beloved teenage son is stuggling with pornography, his grades are in the toilet and he doesn’t seem to mind being dishonest. My support system was lost through a move. Finances are extremely worrying. My husband is depressed. I feel overwhelmed with weaknesses. I’ve faced hard things before and managed to find joy, but lately it’s been much much harder.

    This post reminds me that sometimes happiness is a choice. Sometimes it’s OK to put the burdens aside and ask Heavenly Father to take care of them for a while and enjoy a walk on a warm spring day. Sometimes it’s OK to not do the dinner dishes and to read a book instead. Sometimes I can smile and say, “The day’s been just fine” instead of complaining about how awful everything is. (I’m not saying I want to be fake about it, but sometimes it’s better to suck it up and realize there IS beauty even in the hard days than to constantly whine.)

    Thanks for the reminder, Angela. I needed it today.

  17. This is one of those posts that you feel immediately that it is TRUTH. But you were never able to be the ideas-words together before. Thank you so much – this is sooo needed.
    I think it is harder at church – lately I have a new saying for my experience. I Love Church, but it can be a hard gig.
    Im thinking of bumper stickers – i think they would go fast.

  18. The lessons you share here are transforming my life.

    Justine: “I am happier now than I’ve ever been, even as I see how my life is less certain and less ‘managed’ than any other time in memory.”

    I can relate to that in a big way.

    And this?

    “The most effective lessons are the ones that seem to set you back; the only success that matters is your success in transcending fear and maintaining peace within yourself.”

    Wow. Excellent.

    All of this I have called my process of redefining happiness. Elder Wirthlin’s talk
    “Come What May and Love It” was one of those turning point talks for me (even though the first time I listened, I thought — I can’t be one of those bee-boppy happy types. And then I went back and re-read and realized that wasn’t what he was saying).

    Anyway, great post. Thanks.

  19. My health has been giving me fits lately, which tends to rain on my parade pretty heavily. However, I am trying to hold on to a reasonable degree of happiness by not having such an agenda about how I feel physically and just trying to enjoy the moment.

    Also, I am reveling in my relationships. And taking time to both feed them and take what I need from them. When push comes to shove, that’s where the real good feeling lies: in the people you love. And the only success that has to be involved there is the success you have in connecting at a level deep enough to nurture both of you.

    That’s what I’m working on and reminding myself. And I’m also taking more time to earnestly study the scriptures and pray in a meaningful way every morning, rather than rush through the process and then try to distract myself all day from the fact that I don’t feel good. Where physical healing fails, I’ll take some spiritual healing any day!

    I’ve quoted Philippians, Chapter 4 here before, but here it comes again, not only because it’s my favorite but because it’s highly applicable to this topic:

    11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
    12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
    13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.

    I can’t let my happiness depend upon having the right external conditions in place. What I need to depend on is the part I can do something about…my own, internal condition.

    =)

  20. Sue,
    So sorry to hear. I empathize, at least to the degree that I can, with the challenge of health issues. Can be really, really hard.

  21. It’s late and I need to go to bed, but I just wanted you to know, Angela, how much I enjoyed your post and the comments. This is one of those posts that I will revisit and ponder over. I have been working on new definitions of happiness lately, and this is so timely. Thank you.

  22. I find joy in spite (or in the middle) of my own falling down/over/to pieces. Joy that I can still notice the little things, when the big things have gone so awfully, tragically wrong. Joy that I have survived, that I have learned, that I have begun to hope again.

    Teaching my sons the same lesson is hard – who wants others to have pain to compare happiness against? No one wants it, but it’s something we can’t avoid. So I point out the little things – sunsets, colours, jokes, hugs and kisses, and then the bad doesn’t seem so enduring.

    I don’t search for success. I hope for success with my own personal salvation, work towards a level of success with my sons as a parent, but beyond that I actually don’t look or particularly care. Except when it’s something I REALLY want, then – like m&m linked to – I try to count the cost of what that success is. If I’m happy with the math, I go for it. And after trying for success with something important to me, the more effort I put in the sweeter the success. No matter how teeny that success is to others, it’s success to me.

    Fantastic thought provoking post!

  23. I was sitting in Sacrament meeting a few years ago when the speaker, a woman a few years younger than I, said something that sank deep into my soul.

    She said, “The motivation for our work in our church callings should be love of God and love for our fellow men.” As Christ taught, all else hangs on these two principles.

    I began to take stock of my life. I come from a small ward, so I was involved in a lot of church work. Was I making visiting teaching visits simply because I loved those sisters that I visited, or was I doing it because my reputation as a competent visiting teacher was at stake and I wanted my Relief Society president to know that I was dependable?

    Was I putting a tremendous amount of effort into our ward Primary activity because I enjoyed and loved those children or because I got personal satisfaction out of doing a bang-up job?

    Was I preparing my Sunday School lesson because I loved the Lord’s teachings and dearly loved the young people in my class or because I was hoping that the Lord or someone else would think “Wow, Sister B. sure teaches good lessons, and she’s there every Sunday, too.”

    When I honestly answered those questions, I was not impressed with my answers.

    So I started to watch and change my reasons for doing the things I was doing. What happened in my life as I did so surprised me. My definition of success and competence and worth dramatically changed. Success was not measured by my statistical reports (though my statistics stayed the same). Success was not measured by the number of people who participated in an activity or presentation that I made, or by the number of positive comments I received afterwards. Success was measured by how much I loved the people I was working with. And I found that I could love them a lot.

    Interestingly, though the work I was doing became less detailed and flashy, and instead was more simple, the effectiveness of the work did not change. And the stress and busyness levels went way down and the joy and love levels went way up.

    In the Book of Alma, when Lamoni’s father began to understand the importance of choosing wisely the things that bring eternal life and joy, he said to Aaron, “Behold, I will give up all that I possess, yea I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.” I had found that a part of my kingdom that I needed to give up was the part that did good works out of a sense of responsibility and a wish to be perceived by the Lord or anyone else as dependable, imaginative, competent and helpful.

    My insight: I needed to measure success by how much I loved.

    Should this have surprised me? No. “By this shall men know that ye are my disciples,” said the Lord, “if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)

    I came to understand that joy and satisfaction didn’t come from the quantity of tasks I completed or the intensity and creativity involved or from the statistical results. Joy in the things I did came from the love involved in each task I undertook.

  24. What a great post! These are challenging, freeing things to think about. It’s definitely an idea to revisit at each phase or stage of life. Every few years it seems I am trying to “find” and define myself as my obligations change. This is a wonderful reminder to focus my search on joy instead of a perceived definition of success. Thank you!

  25. Thank you to so many of you who’ve shared your insights and life experiences. What MB says is true–joy comes from the love we give and receive.

  26. Angela,
    Such a great and insightful post. I think part of growing up, or growing into our own, is learning truly that joy is success, not the other way around. I needed this post. Thanks

  27. Angela,a I cannot even tell you how this post affected me. Thank you.

    Anonymous, I’m so very sorry.

    mb,”I needed to measure success by how much I loved.” You just answered a prayer, I didn’t even know I was praying. I’m so grateful.

  28. I just want to say what a sisterhood I feel on Segullah. Your kind words mean a lot.

    And Michelle, I read your blog post and I want you to know that it was really lovely, and something happened through it that was obviously God’s hand in my life. Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. And I agree with you. Love is worth the risk. Even when it’s tremendously difficult, there is beauty to be had.

    But sometimes it’s super hard.

    Hard or not, I’m going to be brave and be happy.

  29. Anonymous, thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m so glad you were able to find some healing from the amazing women in this community.

Comments are closed.