|By A.D. Freudenheim||
27 October 2002
Almost two years ago, I wrote a column about depression, and about how our society seems so resistant to accepting "negative" emotions. We no longer tolerate great degrees of sadness, and instead encourage anyone with emotional problems to seek chemical treatments, rather than intellectual or emotional ones. All too often, the question has ceased to be "Why are you sad?" and has instead become "Why bother being sad?" Those two questions are not at all the same, and the implications of the latter suggest that success in life can only be measured in terms of happiness.
I am starting to wonder whether a similar transformation (or, perhaps, transvaluation) of values has taken place in our financial world as well. Much has been made of the tremendous economic changes in the U.S. and around the world in the last decade. One would have to be a complete recluse not to hear the daily reports on fluctuations in the stock market, consumer spending indices, housing markets, and other areas of the economy; yet this attention to numbers has likely taken over too many aspects of life. Just as the value we place on negative emotions has changed, so has the standard take on success - as a result, in part, of our fixation on the numbers. The question most people used to pose to themselves (regardless of class, race, or gender) was "What do I need to do to succeed?" Now it seems to be "What do I need to do to get rich?"
Again, those two questions are not at all the same - and the second question gets to the discomfort that many people probably feel about their lives, when they begin to measure their success and self-worth solely in economic terms. There is nothing wrong with being rich, or even what might simply be called "comfortable." But the definition of "comfortable" has itself evolved, along with our fixation on all things financial. How many of us would answer the question "What would make you more happy?" by saying "more money"? The funny thing is how the "more" part of "more money" is rarely enough for long.
Defining success in life is a very individual process; the definition of success changes from person to person. We are accustomed to seeing life as a ladder: we start at the bottom, and our mission is to climb as close as we can to the top. Therefore, we tend to see our best path as being upwards, even when we might be better off sacrificing what we perceive to be the benefits of moving up (more money, or responsibility, or power, or fame) for the success that can come with moving laterally, into a new area of life. If we allow ourselves to think of success more broadly than in plain financial terms, that lateral move may appear more possible, more acceptable. If we can sustain ourselves even when the happiness we seek is not immediately available, we might discover other opportunities we did not know existed, aspects of life that offer more intellectual or emotional stimulation, with or without the financial remuneration.
Maybe I am making this too simplistic. I do know that I ask myself, "What would make my life better, what would make me happier?" While I can think of any number of ways in which more money would help make life easier, I know that it would not, by itself, make me feel successful or happy. Yes, I am lucky - luckily comfortable - compared with 90% of the people on Earth; if you are reading this, you are probably in that lucky 10% yourself. But I will be honest and say that, right now, I am not sure I know the answer to my own question, of what might make me happier in life. I am not unhappy; I am facing intellectual and emotional struggles that I think will only improve my life in the long run, even if they cause me pain in the here and now.
The one answer I do have is that whatever definitions of success I come up with in the course of my life, I know they will come only from asking myself the right questions, and not the wrong ones. And I know that I have to ask the questions in the first place. Take nothing for granted.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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