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What Counts As Success?

I‘ve noticed a few stories in the press recently of highly successful people coming to unfortunate ends. There was a top executive at a Swiss insurance firm who apparently committed suicide due to the stress he was under at work. The other week a student intern at a US bank in London was found dead at home, and although the cause of death is as yet not known, questions have been raised about the working hours of young people in such positions. And the chief executive of Lloyds bank was forced to take 6 weeks off a few months ago because of extreme exhaustion.

Of course most of us might not so far up the ladder as some of these people, but their stories raise pertinent questions for all of us. One of these questions is, how do we measure value in our life? What counts as success?

Our answer may be to do with happiness, family, enjoyment, health, love and so on, but these are things that cannot be quantified. Whereas our bank account and salary (if we have one) can. We might not be always too sure how happy or fulfilled we are, but a big number on our payslip is there in black and white. And a big number means we can buy things. Buying things, especially expensive things, can bring a beguiling sense of achievement and satisfaction. If we can do this, we must really be somebody. Our life must have value. Thus it can be tempting to find value in money.

This in fact is one of the central myths we live by these days; the myth that money is what brings value to our lives. If you have a lot of it, people will treat you as if you are worth something. If you have no money, you may feel worthless. Many of us would deny we live by such a myth, but its hold on us can be all the stronger because we do not recognise it, and do not want to recognise it. After all, it is drummed into us night and day by advertising, politicians, and much of the media.

Rejecting this myth, however, and finding a better way of valuing ourselves and others, does not mean we have to go to the other extreme. Money is clearly not the root of all evil; it gives you the ability to do a great deal of good. The most effective altruists in history, the individuals who have done the most good for others, are, according to the philosopher of altruism Peter Singer, no other than Bill Gates and his wife, and Warren Buffet, billionaires all. Money is clearly neither good nor bad, it depends on what you use it for (and how you get it!) A better way of measuring value, therefore, may be in terms not of what we have, or what we get, but in terms of what we give. This provides us with a neat way of turning the myth on its head.

Money, therefore, would seem to be value neutral – it’s what we do with it that counts. However, in practice our relationship with money is not that simple. Where money is concerned we might have to admit that we are not rational animals. What we are in part, possibly, are greedy animals. That might sound a bit harsh; we don’t like to think of ourselves as a greedy guts, but in fact we are expected to be greedy – it might even be that our economy depends on our being greedy! Greed is the norm, we don’t even notice it at work in our lives. We’ve got 30 TV channels, but we want 40. And maybe a bigger TV to watch them on. We’ve got a perfectly nice house, but we want a bigger one. In a better neighbourhood. We’ve got a perfectly delightful handbag, but we want a new one. We’re bored with our car, we want a change. All perfectly normal responses in our world. So what is extravagant or unheard of for one generation becomes the norm for the next. To keep on upgrading in this way we need money. What used to be a luxury is now something we cannot live without (or so we think.) We need more money so we can spend more.

One consequence of such an approach to life is that we are never satisfied or content, and if that is the case then perhaps we are not really happy either. There is a nice Buddhist story about a disagreement between the Buddha and a king as to who was the happier. The king insisted that he was happier – he had great riches and power after all, several wives and plenty of elephants! But the Buddha, who had not very much at all in the way of possessions, asked him whether he could just sit down in a simple room and be happy for an hour. The king thought he could do that. Two hours then? Probably. How about all day? The king hesitated. The Buddha pointed out that he could sit still all day and be perfectly happy. So who was really the happy one?

Happiness and health, moreover, are closely related. We should perhaps beware of a life dominated by greed, including socially acceptable greed, for it can damage our health. Perhaps like the chief exec of Lloyds we can end up working ourselves into the ground to be ‘successful’, only to find that ‘success’ has made us ill. Once we start skipping meals, or eating whilst we work, once we start working late and missing sleep, once we start using up energy we do not really have, we are asking for trouble. Acupuncturists like me see a lot of people with problems as diverse as migraines, IBS, insomnia and panic attacks which often seem to be at least in part due to what they are doing to themselves in the name of ‘success’. Of course if you are young and have a strong constitution, you can get away with such things for a while, but even then you risk setting up bad habits which will take their toll later on in life.

More subtly, the sense of lack, the gnawing emptiness at the centre of greed that is never really filled by the big salary and expensive purchases, may itself be a cause of ill-health. Perhaps it is a factor in the widespread modern mental health problems such as depression and anxiety; maybe it is also connected with digestive problems and eating disorders, as we unconsciously try to fill up the gap with food, recognising that we need nourishment, but not recognising quite what kind of nourishment we need.

This is not to say that we should sit around like a cabbage, achieving nothing. Achievement is important, but it is a question of what counts as achievement. A big number on a bank statement or a new wide-screen TV don’t count. Driving ourselves to try to fill up the emptiness at the heart of greed is the problem. Achievement should come as the more or less natural expression of the things in us which are the opposite of greed – things like love, inspiration and compassion. In short, a life characterised by a giving of ourselves rather than one by taking for ourselves.

Written by Vimalaprabha

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