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New Indicators for Success

Armen Hareyan's picture

In mid-September, French President Nicholas Sarkozy proposed an overhaul to the way we gauge economic success, telling his national statistics agency to go beyond GDP by taking “quality of life” factors into account. The request came after Nobel Prize-winning economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz issued a report questioning the traditional focus on economic growth, urging greater consideration of the social costs of unemployment and environmental ruin.

The move has predictably divided critics. A recent article in the New York Times observed that while growth indicators show a strong recovery in the US, unemployment still sits near 10%, suggesting that the traditional metric is divorced from economic reality. By contrast, the Economist suggested that Sarkozy’s move was largely meant as a response to his country’s slow rate of growth. Still, France is not alone in rejecting narrowly defined economic indicators. Most notably, the Kingdom of Bhutan has long eschewed GDP in favor of “Gross National Happiness,” which incorporates indicators of political, social, and environmental health.

Now here’s another big idea: as economists and governments reject material economic growth as the sole indicator of success and well-being, perhaps it’s time for individuals to follow their lead.

We’re all familiar with the truism that money can’t buy happiness, but that hasn’t stopped most of us from trying. The fact is, a “successful” person is still defined as someone with considerable material accomplishments, and most of us are guilty to some degree of chasing this conventional definition of success.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with chasing wealth if that’s really what makes you happy. Yet, every day I talk to people who have had, or are having, some form of mid-life crisis, and it’s amazing how many of them have accomplished everything they set out to do. They have the big house, the new car, the fat paycheck, and the corner office. At some point in their lives, they told themselves that these things would make them happy. But when they got to the top of the mountain they found that, for all their “success,” they weren’t happy.

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It’s a result of a phenomenon I call “I’ll be happy when.” We tell ourselves that the next big benchmark is the one that will finally bring us the happiness we’ve been seeking. Sometimes it’s strictly material – a car, a raise, a new pool – while other times it’s a milestone, like graduating college or getting our own place. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with setting goals. Yet “I’ll be happy when” becomes a never-ending cycle, as we immediately set our eyes on the next milestone and make our happiness entirely dependent on the attainment of that goal.

Most importantly, using such external benchmarks to determine our internal happiness is a dangerous game. Sure, sometimes those external benchmarks are aligned with our internal desires, but more often we’re just living by someone else’s blueprint. We chase wealth not because we’ve thought long and hard and determined that wealth will bring us happiness, but because society defines success that way. It’s no surprise that so many well-off people have mid-life crises – they’re “successful” in society’s eyes, but not in their own.

In a sense, France and Bhutan have had mid-life crises of their own. Like every country, they had always subscribed to the idea that the best indicator of national prosperity and well-being was growth, as defined as increased in GDP. Yet eventually they began to realize that GDP was an external indicator, and one that had little to do with their own values and priorities. They prized things like environmental protection, economic equality, and strong cultural values – none of which GDP accounted for. So they created their own metric, one that would reflect their own internal beliefs.

On an individual level, this means that happiness starts on the inside. I believe that true happiness comes when you can look in the mirror and say, “I’m happy with who I am, what I do, and the decisions I make.” That means making sure that your pursuit of happiness is guided by your own notion of success, and that your actions are guided by your values.

We all have an internal value system that spans the full range of decisions we make on a daily basis. In some cases this is just your moral code – the rules by which you live. But it also means your whole philosophy toward life. We’ve all heard the mantras: “step outside your comfort zone,” “live every day like it’s your last,” “do what you like, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” A lot of us probably even find ourselves reciting these sayings from time to time, and claim that we live by them.

Like France and Bhutan, it’s time to look in the mirror and question whether that’s really the case.

Written by By Dr. Andrew Sirlin. He is a Long Island-based chiropractor, wellness consultant, and corporate speaker. His website is www.DrAndrewSirlin.com.