What is success, anyway?

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Our society often makes the mistake of equating success with wealth. It's not a surprise that we do this. After all, wealth has the advantage of being measurable. When we can measure something, we can rate how we're doing versus everyone else. We love to compete with each other.

But aside from providing us with a handy way to "keep up with the Jones'," what does the equation of success with wealth really do? It's commonly accepted that money doesn't buy happiness. If someone is wealthy and unhappy, is he or she successful? Of course not!

Success is less about money than it is about worth. A successful person is one who looks at what he or she contributes and is satisfied with what he or she sees. Success is recognition, even if only internal (because in the end, you're the only one who's completely a part of your life). If you're happy, then you've succeeded.

Unfortunately, while American traditions hold that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right, happiness itself is far from guaranteed. Indeed, the pursuit of happiness can be a frustrating battle of competing priorities, high prices, and lost time. These very real costs give us the illusion that our unhappiness is caused by what we have spent along the way, to which we readily conclude that if we had fewer responsibilities, lower expenses, and more time, we would be happy. We devote much of our lives to attaining a level of financial independence at which we can at last retire and enjoy our hard-earned free time.

Yet, do you know that the average life expectancy of a retiree who doesn't take up a new challenge to occupy his or her time is about five years? Humans thrive on stimulation. We can't go from overwork to perpetual vacation. We get bored, and we die.

The secret to real happiness, therefore, is neither to have money nor to accumulate money for the future. Both of these may be useful (and up to a point, they're perfectly sensible), but it's much more important that you identify what it is that you like to do with your time than to find ways to free it up sooner.

If you don't know what you want to do -- and especially if you're sure that whatever it is, it's not what you're doing now -- you probably can't just quit, but you can start to make changes that will make you happier. Start looking for other options. Sign up for some adult education classes at a community college, the kind that have a flat fee and meet once a week for a few weeks. Study languages, maybe. Or art. Or cooking. Try everything you can. You'll know what you like when you find it.

And once you do find it, see how you can incorporate it into your life. We spend most of our lives sleeping or at work, and odds are that you need your sleep. You probably need to work to live, but you might as well be working at a job that you enjoy. Then you'll be on the road to happiness. That's success.