Differentiating Success From Happiness

With the dawn of the social media age and our newfound sense of complete creative control in the presentation of our real lives as well as the fostering of a culture here at Boston College in which excellence and perfection are the standard, I’ve found that many of us have a very similar and well-defined perception of what it means to be successful. I’ve also found, however, that holding oneself to that rigid definition is the very thing precluding us from enjoying it: The first bastion of success as defined by many is happiness. How often have you heard, upon asking someone what they want out of life, “I just want to be happy”? Probably pretty frequently, because that is the primary answer I’ve received (and, heck, it’s the primary answer I’ve given). I have, however, genuinely struggled with my pursuit of happiness. As such, I present to you now a defense of unhappiness and posit that holding oneself to a standard of success in which one must achieve and maintain happiness is foolish and, frankly, miserable.

In debunking happiness as a measure of success, I would like to first consider how unrealistic it is to expect that someone maintains her happiness indefinitely. It’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting that happiness necessarily accompanies success and that once one is successful, she will always be happy—but this is impossible. Whether for mundane reasons (for example, catching the flu or a bad break-up) or for more medically significant reasons (such as clinical depression), happiness is an elusive and often fleeting emotion. There will always be things that ruin your day and, although wanting to banish those things from your life is natural, actually doing so is a feat well outside the human capacity. While mitigating these feelings is possible, their mere existence should not impact your view on your successes because they are impossible to avoid. Therefore, judging one’s own success by the metric of happiness is neither sustainable nor accurate.  

The expectation that one can perpetually maintain a sense of happiness, and that doing so is necessary for success, is harmful. I can use my own experience with this to illustrate. I struggle to stay happy, and as a result I am very hard on myself about how I interact with others and how I communicate that unhappiness. I hoped to “fix” myself by seeking help from external sources: I tried talking to friends and loved ones, but I felt frustrated at how little I could tell them and how very little they could actually empathize with, compounding how lonely and hopeless I felt. It led to a lot of fights, and each time I felt like I was just bringing everyone down. I couldn’t reconcile with myself that I’m just as worthy of love and understanding as anyone else, that my unhappiness was valid and deserving of attention, and most of all that I wasn’t broken for feeling unhappy. It’s difficult and sad to acknowledge that even this most fundamental act of self-love was out of reach for me. I genuinely felt like a failure for being unable to maintain my happiness. It seemed like something everyone else could do—why was I so bad at it? Why I couldn’t just be “happy” or “like everyone else”?

After recognizing that perhaps my friends had no idea how to help me or even how to answer those questions, I sought professional help and learned that a lot of people can’t “just be happy,” and that hanging onto that expectation was another weapon I was using to beat myself up. My desire and expectation for happiness was one of the very things keeping me from it.

Unhappiness is normal and universal. Granted, being happy is a good thing and having the ability to mitigate any negative feelings—particularly those directly causing harm to one’s mental health—is important and necessary. This is not intended to be an attack on happiness—rather, it is intended to correct the notion of isolation which often accompanies unhappiness. Most, if not all, of us assume that, when we feel particularly unhappy, no one understands or cares to understand and that we are entirely alone in feeling unhappy. One need only scroll through Instagram and Facebook to see that everyone we’ve ever met since middle school is living a better life, a happier life, a more successful life than we are right now.

At least, that’s how it appears. This only serves to reinforce that feeling creeping up in the backs of our minds, tugging at the corner of our souls when unhappiness strikes: “I’m in this alone.” Recognizing that this is not actually the case, that millions of people over the course of human history have likely felt precisely the same things, goes a long way toward mitigating those feelings of unhappiness and, more importantly, demonstrates that feeling unhappy is not a sign of failure. Because unhappiness is so universally felt, despite the front that we tend to put up around each other, this means that even the most successful people have been or are currently unhappy. As such, to attribute failure to feeling unhappy is misguided and illogical. If even the most successful of people are unhappy at times, then it’s absurd to expect oneself to “succeed” at happiness consistently, which will only cause further unhappiness.

To uphold the expectation that one should be always happy is a disservice and an injustice to yourself. By acknowledging how acceptable our unhappiness is, we are showing ourselves a higher level of kindness and understanding. Ultimately, in fostering this positive relationship with feelings, based not on the societal expectation of perfection, but on the more realistic and compassionate understanding of our own humanity, we will come closer to achieving the success of a life well lived.   

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor