As a financial advisor, money is certainly a subject that's close to my heart. When I give group seminars, I often like to begin by asking people to give me definitions of what money means to them. And I always get a similar range of replies: freedom, security, opportunity, power. I've asked this same question to hundreds of people over the last several years, and I rarely ever hear the standard dictionary definition, which is simply that money is a means of exchange.
What's important about their answers is that they illustrate something about our culture. The problem is not just that we think money can buy us things, but also that we tend to define money as an end in and of itself. My personal definition of money is a means to satisfy a desire. That may sound straightforward enough, but things get complicated when we tend to measure our satisfaction, happiness or success by how much money we have.
Through the work I do, I see proof on a regular basis that having a million dollars in the bank has no relationship to happiness, but people continue to insist that it does, even when their own experience seems to show otherwise. Many of my clients who have reached this milestone tell me that they still wake up in the morning and feel as if they're broke.
Implicit in the statement "money won't buy you happiness" is the idea that something else will, even though we don't quite know what that something is. What do we mean when we say "happiness"? Usually it represents a certain emotional state -- a feeling of peace, joy, contentment, satisfaction -- that we may have experienced in brief moments of our lives and that we want to experience as often as possible.
When I got to a point in my own life where I found myself "successful" by common standards yet far from happy, I had to rethink what success was all about. For the previous several years I'd been chasing a dream, religiously visualizing my goals and attaining them one by one. And I'd found a lot of joy in that process. I didn't know then that my brain is wired this way, but I saw in my own experience that there was more joy in chasing the dream than there was in actually getting it. There was nothing wrong with having the money, and it sure was nice not to have to worry about paying the bills each month. But I had attained everything and then found myself missing the thrill that came from the pursuit itself.
Now, we could conclude from this experience, as many brain scientists do, that our evolutionary wiring is a kind of curse, condemning us to perpetual letdown. The anticipation mechanism can seem like a cruel trick of nature. But I looked at it another way. I realized that the problem was not that the goals I'd reached weren't good enough. The problem was that I was standing still again. I had no journey anymore. So I started to turn my attention to the journey itself, to the sense of striving and reaching ever higher, and decided to seek my happiness there, rather than in any particular outcome.
When we really understand that there's nothing we can get that will make us happy, we can stop striving to accumulate more and more. But because we're not made to stand still, we need to redirect our "seeking system" and enlist it in the service of what we want to express in the world, rather than how we want to feel.
That's the key to this approach; we have to become less concerned with how we happen to feel moment to moment. When we begin to pay less attention to our feeling states as a measure of our success, we will find that we have a tremendous resource of energy and attention at our disposal to begin to have an impact -- on our own lives and on others around us. This is what I discovered when I set out to find what lies beyond success and to redefine success itself in the process.
I say beyond success because success, I've discovered, is not an end point, a state of outer wealth or inner peace that we can achieve and then stop. We as human beings are not made to stop; we are creatures of change, curiosity and creativity who need to always have our goals set a little beyond our reach. We thrive on challenge and engagement. I am convinced that this is what we are here for. We are designed to give of ourselves -- of our energy, our unique creative expressions, our talents, our strengths. It is my deepest belief that we are each a unique vessel for the creative impulse that is animating life itself. And I feel that it's only through aligning our individual strengths with that universal source of creativity, in such a way that simultaneously fulfills our own deepest desires and serves others, that we will we find what could be called lasting happiness.
This piece is adapted from "Beyond Success: Redefining the Meaning of Prosperity" © 2009 Jeffrey L. Gitterman. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books (www.amacombooks.org), a division of the American Management Association.