‘Success’. It sounds like something we’d all like a bigger slice of, even if we are already doing prettywell. The word conjures up images of millionaires: suit-clad men and glamorous women quaffing champagne in Bentleys on the gravel driveway of their country mansion. Who wouldn’t want that?
Although this cartoon of the successful business person or lottery winner won’t happen for most of us, it’s probably fair to say we measure success mainly in material terms. So where’s the harm in that? If we want to keep the economy growing we all need to consume more: bigger house, bigger car, and - perhaps- a bigger waistline.
Adverts always aim to get us to consume more. They create dissatisfaction with what we have. The admen and women’s cause is assisted by our own human nature: we jog along on what psychologists call the ‘hedonic treadmill’ - or our strong belief that a significant future event such as buying a new house or winning the lottery will make us happier than we are now.
So we pursue that future next ‘big thing’. Psychological studies, however, indicate that our happiness levels are not altered by many of these events, and we overestimate their importance.
Yet our pursuit of the ‘big thing’ can interfere with what we really need to be happy: activities we enjoy, for example, or relationships. When we find ourselves with little time for our children, our old people, community and friends, we may be pushing too hard. There are many ways to be poor: poverty can include lack of quality time with the people we love – even if we are materially richer than ever before.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-wealth. As a business owner I need to make money to survive, and I understand the need to put bread on the table and pay the bills. But we used to be ‘citizens’, and we have become ‘consumers’. This shift has far-reaching consequences.
Putting all our effort into earning in order to consume more leaves less time and energy for things that really can bring us happiness. Conversely, consuming only what we really need and want could be the first step off the work-spend-debt fuelled treadmill that we may have created for ourselves.
Freeing up our time and energy can create a new definition of success: one thatincludes spending more time doing fun things with the people who matter most.