George Soros

What’s better, success or happiness?

I’ve just spent an hour looking for a success quote someone posted on Facebook. I just wasted an hour. Basically, the quote said, “Hell is looking back on your life and realizing what you could have become.” There is something so wrong with that, I hardly know where to begin. What’s better, success or happiness? Here’s a picture of George Soros. He is successful, but he doesn’t look happy.

George Soros

Americans are obsessed with success. They imagine success equals happiness. It’s interesting to note that more people use antidepressants in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. Could it be because Americans see success as the secret to happiness and deny themselves happiness until and unless they are successful? I can’t answer the question for everyone, but I have answered it for myself.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be successful. I believe I was brainwashed into thinking success and happiness were synonymous. When I was 20 years old, I was in a bookstore looking for a novel to read. A book caught my eye. It was Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I had never thought about learning to meditate or do yoga, but the book drew me to it. I bought it and read it in one or two sittings. Then I signed up for the Self Realization Fellowship course and learned how to meditate.

Within a week, my perspective on life began to change. Success became a carrot that was always dangling in front of you, but was always just out of reach. If you became a millionaire, you wanted more. If you became a billionaire, you still wanted more. Whatever you possessed, you had to replace it with a newer model. To feel pride, you had to be wealthier than your neighbor. The pursuit of success looked like hell to me. I had found inner happiness and didn’t want to lose it.

So my definition of hell is the opposite of the quote I read. I’ll be 69 in a week and as I look back on my life, the only times I’ve been unhappy are the times I’ve wanted stuff. It doesn’t matter what the stuff was. Sometimes it was money and sometimes it was sex. Sometimes it was the freedom to travel or the desire to be out of debt.

There have been other times when having stuff didn’t matter to me at all. I’ve always felt happy during those times because I was living in the present moment and doing whatever the moment demanded. Sometimes I was having fun. Sometimes I wasn’t, but my consciousness was in the right place.

I remember one time when I was particularly miserable. I had a terrible job. While I was driving to work on a cold, rainy day, I tried a little trick. I’ve written about it before. It’s called amygdala tickling. On that particular day, my mood changed from miserable to bliss in a nanosecond and I finally learned the secret to happiness. It’s not what you have: it’s the head space you’re in.

When I was younger, I thought you had to meditate a lot to get into that space. That’s because meditation gave me the first taste of true happiness I’d ever felt. I didn’t know how much easier it could be. I learned a valuable lesson that cold, rainy morning. Happiness is within reach of all of us. Since then I’ve:

  • Been broke
  • Struggled to make ends meet
  • Lost the ability to walk without pain
  • Been disappointed in love

Those sound like reasons to be depressed, but I haven’t let depression trick me since that remarkable experience. I don’t always get blissed out, but I can always climb out of depression and see the bright side of things:

  • When I was broke, I learned my Cambodian wife hadn’t married me for my money.
  • When I struggled to make ends meet, I was grateful to be living in Cambodia, where I was finally able to pursue a career I enjoyed: freelance writing.
  • When I lost the ability to walk without pain, I was able to focus on my work more.
  • When I was disappointed in love, I realized I had nothing to be disappointed about. It was a change: nothing more.

I first put my life in the hands of fate when I dropped out of college. Fate has taken me on an extraordinary journey. Unable to afford to buy a house in San Francisco, we moved to Australia and found a house near a beautiful beach. I was able to start surfing again and continued surfing on a shortboard until I was 58.

When my marriage failed, I thought I was going to live in Bali and teach English as a second language. Coming to Cambodia never occurred to me, but here I am today. After almost ten years here, I can’t believe how “lucky” I was to have stumbled across Sihanoukville, a place that wasn’t on my travel itinerary. I’m still hobbling around with no cartilage in my right knee, but the water is always warm here, so I get exercise by going swimming. I can afford to have a cappuccino every day and dine out every night. Those are perks I couldn’t afford in Australia.

More importantly, I’ve learned what William Blake meant when he wrote:

I’ll take happiness over success any day. I’ve met too many expats who worked hard their whole lives to earn a decent retirement income. Once they’re retired, they don’t know what to do with themselves and take to drinking and reminiscing about the past. I’ve met a few expats who are fairly wealthy, too. The happy ones are doing something worthwhile with their time. The unhappy ones are spending money on indulgences.

Happiness and success aren’t synonymous. It’s how you spend each day that counts. I haven’t perfected happiness yet, but I think I’m getting there. Living in Cambodia has helped. I ran out of money in 2009. I was pretty depressed about it because I had a new family who couldn’t make any money of any substance without me. We sold our car and gold jewelry. My wife told me, “Don’t worry. I never have loi (money) before. Not dead.”

Fate dropped a job into my lap and for about six months I was making $10 per hour working online. Then that job ended and I started freelancing. The first year was tough. I was working seven days a week and making a pittance. I had to dip into my VISA card to get by. After a year, I got a decent paying job and was making about $1200 a month. Things have improved since then, but the experience taught me a valuable lesson.

Most of us Westerners lead pretty cruisy lives compared to so-called 3rd World countries and extremely cruisy lives compared to war-torn countries. If we can’t be happy with what we’ve got, there’s something wrong with us. Success has nothing to do with happiness. You tell me. What’s better, success or happiness? You may be able to have both, but success is no guarantee of happiness. Happiness comes from within. You won’t find it in things.