Sunday, October 16, 2016

A different perspective on success: Relative happiness versus absolute happiness

Previously I described my alternative to conventional goal-setting for improving my life. Having always struggled with worry and doubt, this approach is the work-around I developed to keep me from being completely derailed if I don’t achieve a specific goal when and how I planned. 

After contemplating the seeming defeat of missing a specified target, I usually notice that I did achieve some life-improving breakthroughs, often in areas I didn’t even think I would see any improvement in any time soon—which is why I didn’t set those as goals in the first place. 

This realization brings to mind a very different concept of success than what we are used to. We’ve been trained to define success as material achievement: High-paying career or promotion, impressive house, popularity in our professional and social circles, and so on. 

Conspicuously absent from these criteria is happiness. Most, if any, happiness people feel from this kind of success is what Buddhism calls “relative happiness.” Relative happiness is contingent on things and circumstances, so therefore it is more of an illusion than an authentic life-state. These achievements do not actually make us happy; many people just assume that they must be happy because they achieved the lifestyle that society told them they should aspire to. 

Absolute happiness, on the other hand, is happiness that is not dependent on exterior circumstances. For example, if people who are truly happy face misfortune, such as loss of a job or relationship, they do not allow this misfortune to plunge them into despair. Instead, they use their strong life-condition to turn poison into medicine by seeing their misfortune as an opportunity to change their lives in some positive way. Throughout the process—painful though it often is—the life-condition of such people (i.e., their happiness and will to keep going) stays relatively stable. 

These are the kinds of people I look up to as successful. Sure, it’s good to have role models for career, relationships, social aspirations, fitness, whatever; at the same time, the purpose of such role models is not to teach us how to be happy, but to help us manifest our intentions for value-creation in our lives. 

This perspective entails a more life-affirming alternative for defining success, the Nichiren Buddhist concept of value-creation. Regardless of how much or how little money or glory it attracts to us, a life in which we create value for ourselves and other people is a truly successful life in the ways that matter. In contrast, if we make all the money we possibly can, live in large houses, and have seemingly perfect marriages, yet are still incredibly unhappy, then we are not truly successful in any ways that matter. 

If we are consistently happy with the non-material aspects of our lives—the joy we derive from our spiritual practice, our relationships, staying true to our values, having the courage to express who we truly are without any fear-based fakery—then our happiness will not be at the mercy of our career status, our marriage status, or our physical health. 

Seeing success and happiness in these terms is also a lot more likely to motivate us to change things if we feel the need to, because we will approach this desire to change from a high life-condition. In contrast, if we use comparison and competition with others as our motivation to succeed, we are operating from a lower life-condition, so any satisfaction we may achieve will be fragile and dependent on not suffering any setbacks. 

“Success is not a matter of accumulating more of this or that,” says SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. “It is not measured in quantity. It means changing the quality of your life. Wealth, power, fame and knowledge alone cannot make you happy, no matter how much of these you acquire. Nor can you take them with you when you die. But by improving the quality of your life you will at last approach true happiness.”

I’ve got one more post to go in this series, in which I’ll explore two contrasting definitions of enlightenment, which we can think of as the mystical side of success; stay tuned for it later this week. 

Image: "Shiawassee Park in October" by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; oil pastel

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