Many people, particularly in America, have an exceptionally rigid vision of success. Fast cars, lavish houses, and attractive sex partners dominate our collective image of what it means to succeed in life. Unfortunately, while succeeding at this rigged game may create temporary euphoria and fleeting happiness, it will almost never lead to lasting contentment or inner peace.
This truth has been recognized for centuries by members of both the spiritual and scientific communities. The Old Testament, for example, warns in Ecclesiastes 5:150 that “he who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.”
The Dalai Lama makes a similar point. “We have a largely materialistic lifestyle characterized by a materialistic culture. However, this only provides us with temporary, sensory satisfaction, whereas long-term satisfaction is based not on the senses but on the mind.”
In psychology, the concept of the hedonic treadmill explains this process on a biological level. Although humans often seek out excitement and stimulation, our brains prefer to remain in homeostasis, or equilibrium. When we buy shiny new things our brains release a rush of feel-good chemicals. This effect is particularly dramatic if the object of our affection is something we’ve been striving for–that new car we’ve been dreaming about for years or the perfect little home on a tidy cul-de-sac.
However, once the novelty fades our brains quickly kick into gear. Within a short period of time, we begin down-regulating our excitement levels. Inevitably our moods return to precisely where we began and our pocketbooks, and neurotransmitters, are drained. Responding to this emptiness, we soon find some new object to fantasize over and the cycle continues to infinity.
What, then, is a better measure of success? I think the answer lies in the emotions we associate we success. While so many of us are constantly in search of happiness, perhaps instead we should seek out peace. Peace is much more elusive than happiness, and many of us are lucky to experience even a brief moment of authentic peace in our hectic lives. Peace, unlike happiness, is entirely a product of our own minds and can’t be purchased at any store or displayed in an Instagram picture for all to see. It is precisely this quality that makes peace so valuable and yet so rare in modern society.
For me, finding peace has meant embracing my fears and striving to live every moment of my life as actively and authentically as possible. Peace means rejecting social judgments and arbitrary rules and embracing the freedom that comes from forging your own destiny.
Most importantly, peace means letting go. Letting go of expectations, judgments, and comparisons. Rooting out the deeply-seeded insecurities that grow inside all of us and casting them aside. Taking steps, wobbly at first but increasingly sure, towards living the life that resonates deeply with our most important values.
Success is not easy. This is infinitely more true when we achieve it on our own terms rather than those prescribed for us. But each and every one of us have the tools inside of us to carve out this treacherous path, revel in the journey, and achieve deep and lasting inner peace.