THE BLOG

The Darker Side of Success

13/11/2014 11:38 GMT | Updated 12/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Bob Dylan said that a man is successful if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do. This is the best definition of success I have come across, although it isn't perfect. Doing as you please may be a better indicator of power and independence than success. And power and success are very different things. They don't even overlap conceptually that much.

A similarly slippery, but more substantial concept, is good old plain happiness. The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the American Constitution and proclaimed as a very worthy human endeavour by the 18th Century thinkers that inspired it. It is a common misunderstanding however to think that the signatories of that historical document thought that we all (or at least Americans) had the right to be happy. No, they only had the right to pursue happiness, which is very different thing to actually enjoying it. Happiness is, at best, volatile and ephemerous. A song by the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes reminds us that the lifespan of happiness is always brief, like the flight of a feather that finally falls to the floor when the breeze stops.

The film entitled "The Pursuit of Happyness" [sic] has little to do with happiness and is really all about chasing success. It features Will Smith as the protagonist and is based on a real story. Like most American films, it has a moral message; the wrong message, in my view. It tells us that it is a good thing to go after your dream (a well-paid job in Wall Street in this case) at any cost, even if that entails living homeless with your little son and sleeping in underground toilets. This precarious temporary lifestyle affords the hero the opportunity to complete an internship, which in turn will give him a slim chance of accessing that desirable job. He does get the job in the end, of course, but that's beside the point. Nothing is worth exposing one's child to that ordeal, not even the "American Dream", and certainly not an internship in a financial firm.

There is nothing wrong with having "a dream", of course. The incentive of a final goal may help us focus and cope with some of the trials that life throws at us. But the narrative of life is often fractured and essentially unpredictable, so living with the only purpose of arriving in a particular predesigned place is a bad strategy. We all arrive in the same place in the end, whatever we have done before.

So it's OK to have a dream, but that dream shouldn't be the goal of our lives. And the content of the dream shouldn't be the attainment of "success", because if chasing happiness is like going after a ghost - an ordinary one, let's call it a common or garden ghost, the pursuit of success is like trying to catch a particularly slippery kind of exotic phantom, one so rare and strange that may perhaps not exist at all, like a mythical animal, a psychological Pegasus or unicorn. In fact, no-one really knows what success is. Is it about having a big house? Or a high social media following in today's world? An interesting erotic history perhaps or amassing a high number of notches on your bedpost? A period of fame on television? More horsepower in your drive than your neighbour? Longevity?

It follows therefore that trying to be successful will inevitably fail. The mirage will always dissolve in our hands, like an illusion protruding from a 3-D screen. Because of this, aspiring to be successful is a very efficient way of rapidly becoming stressed, which will in turn lead to anxiety and depression. The dream of success will always remain elusive.

If one does become anxious and depressed in the process of pursuing the ethereal nirvana of success, there are some possible solutions. The first and most obvious step is to readjust some life priorities. Abandon the rat race and enjoy the present moment.

Unfortunately, once the feelings of depression and anxiety have taken root, whatever the original cause, they may refuse to go away on their own accord, even after the "stressor" (in this case a futile struggle for success) has been removed from the equation. In these cases, one could and should seek help. If you are depressed or anxious and don't fancy the idea of taking tablets, there is always psychotherapy, but now there is also a novel new treatment called rTMS (repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation), available at The London Psychiatry Centre, which is extremely effective and easily tolerated.

Forget self-help books and motivational gurus. No need to think positive. No need to believe in yourself and follow the dream. There is no such thing as success.