The Truth About Success: How to Know If Success Will Make You Happy

by Heather Moulder

Too many high-achievers end up exhausted and unfulfilled even though they’ve achieved much within their careers, have the respect of their peers, and make great money. They’re successful on paper, yet unhappy with their success. Why is that? The go-to answers to that question typically relate to stress, not having enough time for self-care and renewal, and being too busy.

Those things aren’t the source for being unhappily successful. They’re symptoms of what’s causing so much unhappiness. The root cause is how success is defined.

Your Definition of Success Matters

Tell me how you define success for yourself and I’ll tell you whether you’ll end up happy 3, 5, and even 10 years from now no matter how “successful” you look on paper. Your definition of success is a roadmap that guides your decisions throughout your life.

It heavily influences:
• the goals you set;
• the career and/or projects you choose to go after;
• the projects you work hardest for; and
• the promotions you take.

How you define success guides every big career decision you make. And it affects (and even guides) your personal decisions in life. Which is why it matters so much. If your definition of success isn’t defined according to your individual desires, needs, and values you’re following the wrong roadmap for you. This incorrect roadmap might take you to the top of your career and make you plenty of money, but you’ll end up feeling empty and yearning for something more.

The Problem with Most Success Definitions

A Definition That’s Narrowly Defined
Success isn’t just about career achievements and financial gain. Yet those are often the only two components in most people’s definition of success – and that way of defining success is way too narrow.

Success is about feeling content and satisfied with who you are and where you end up. It’s about being at peace with yourself and your decisions. Success doesn’t exist without this – no matter how much you’ve achieved in your career. You are a complex and multi-dimensional being. And, although you likely want to achieve certain things within your career and make good money, there’s more to life than that. Your definition of success must include what lights you up and gives you meaning in life.

A Definition That Includes Values and Standards That Aren’t Yours
Most success definitions are a mash-up of:
• what society deems successful;
• familial expectations and values; and
• the individual’s actual desires.

There’s no place in your success definition for anything other than what you truly desire, based on your individual needs and values. All the expectations, values, and standards of other people – those things you feel you should include even though they’re not that important to you – are called “shoulds”. And they need to go.

Including should’s into your success definition will put you into an endless repetitive cycle that eventually crowds out those things that matter most to you. Here’s the thing: you’re human, which means that you want to be accepted and loved. When you’re praised for achieving should-based goals, it will make you feel great in the short-term and more likely to continue going after those type of goals. And before you know it, you’ll find yourself far down the wrong path. One that feels unfulfilling and exhausting.

Clues as to Whether Your Success Definition is Truly Yours

This may sound crazy, but many people don’t realize that their definition of success is based on what other people want and expect of them instead of what they want out of life. That’s because we’re conditioned throughout life to care about what others think of us and to receive (and want) praise. It’s especially difficult to see when you’re in the midst of a career that’s stressful while living a fast-paced lifestyle. So, how can you know before it’s too late?

Be on the lookout for the following warning signs:
• something feels missing and/or you crave something more (yet aren’t sure what that is);
• you achieve goals, but either don’t feel very satisfied or the satisfaction is fleeting;
• your work – or working toward your big goals – often feel laborious, tedious, or boring.

If you often feel this way, then it’s a likely indication that your definition of success isn’t entirely yours and it’s time to redefine it your way.

How to Be Successfully Happy by Defining Success Your Way

So, how can you ensure that you’ll be happy with your achievements and successes? And what can you do if you feel that you’re already on the wrong track? The answer is simple: redefine what success means to you on your own terms. And when defining it, do it from the inside-out. This means that you consider each of:

• what you need to feel whole, complete, and satisfied financially, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually; and
• your core values (what gives you meaning and purpose in life).

Here’s how to get started:

Step #1: Prioritize Self-Care

If you want to define success on your terms, then you must prioritize self-care. Defining success requires that you have clarity around what you need and what you value most. Unfortunately, today’s fast-paced, overly busy way of living isn’t conducive to having mental clarity. It stresses the mind, body, and soul. But you can do something about it by prioritizing self-care.

When I mention self-care to most professionals, I get a lot of eye-rolls. And that’s usually because there’s a common misperception about what self-care is, as though it’s an optional thing you do to indulge or escape. The purpose of self-care is to ensure your physical, spiritual, and mental/emotional well-being. And there’s nothing optional, selfish, or indulgent about that.

As a starting point (especially if you’re short on time), set aside a minimum of 10 minutes per day to sit in quiet stillness. I recommend taking slow, deep breaths in and out of the nose. This is a form of meditation. Pay attention to what comes up. You can take this even further by journaling during this time. This simple practice will allow your subconscious thoughts to begin to bubble to the surface and will increase your awareness of your emotions and feelings. And that awareness is necessary if you want to know for certain what you want (and what you don’t).

Step #2: Reconnect with Your Core Personal Values.

Personal values shape who you are and help provide meaning to your life. When you align how you live and behave with your values, you’ll feel more fulfilled. When you don’t, you’ll feel like something’s missing from or wrong with your life. For example, a client came to me feeling unmotivated in a job that she once loved. Although she was moving up within the ranks, she didn’t feel appreciated.

After working to clarify her core values, she discovered that being in community with others was one of them – and that was no longer happening at work. We worked together to find ways to remedy this and she once again felt like a productive member of the team. Not only that, but she accepted a big promotion.

So, how do you figure out what your values are? Ask yourself the following questions:

1. When have you felt most angry, embarrassed, or disappointed with yourself and why? What rule, standard, or value were you ignoring or not honoring that’s important to you?

2. At the end of your life, what do you most want people to remember and say about you? Look for common themes to these answers and ask yourself what value underlies these common themes.

Step #3: Create Your Own Definition of Success

Once you’re taking better care of yourself and have more space to think, you’ll be better able to answer the questions above. And you’ll be ready to create your own definition of success from the inside-out. Create your definition based on what you value and what you need to feel good about yourself (both in your career and in your personal life). As you do this, make sure that your new definition encompasses you as a whole person and doesn’t include any “shoulds”.

Run everything through the lens of your values. As you decide what success means to you, go through the following exercise:

• Ask how it relates to your values – what’s meaningful to you about it?
• Challenge your answers by asking why that’s meaningful to you.
• Keep challenging and asking why until (1) you’re satisfied that it’s important to you, or (2) you’ve discovered that it relates to a standard, expectation, or value that’s not yours.

Once you go through this process, you should have a new definition of success. One that’s specifically designed for you. It’s time to use it as your new roadmap to make better career and life decisions so that you’ll end up feeling fulfilled, happy and at peace with your life.

Heather Moulder

about the author

Heather Moulder

Heather Moulder is an executive career and life coach, speaker, recovering attorney, and founder of Course Correction Coaching. She works with high-achieving professionals who are successful on paper, yet exhausted and unfulfilled by their high-stress lifestyle. Through simple yet powerful shifts, Heather helps her clients make a course correction so that they can create a balanced lifestyle that includes career success and a life that they’re passionate about and energized by.

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