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Are you a 'success addict'?

Discussion in 'Personal' started by monicabilongame, Aug 4, 2020.

  1. monicabilongame

    monicabilongame Star commenter

    I suspect many on here may be - I can think of at least one.

    Long article, but very interesting.

    Imagine reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Booze.” You would likely expect a depressing story about a person in a downward alcoholic spiral. Now imagine instead reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Success.” That would be an inspiring story, wouldn’t it?

    Maybe—but maybe not. It might well be the story of someone whose never-ending quest for more and more success leaves them perpetually unsatisfied and incapable of happiness.

    Physical dependency keeps alcoholics committed to their vice, even as it wrecks their happiness. But arguably more powerful than the physical addiction is the sense that drinking is a relationship, not an activity. As the author Caroline Knapp described alcoholism in her memoir Drinking: A Love Story, “It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out.” Many alcoholics know that they would be happier if they quit, but that isn’t the point. The decision to keep drinking is to choose that intense love—twisted and lonely as it is—over the banality of mere happiness.

    Though it isn’t a conventional medical addiction, for many people success has addictive properties. To a certain extent, I mean that literally—praise stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is implicated in all addictive behaviors. (This is basically how social media keeps people hooked: Users get a dopamine hit from the “likes” generated by a post, keeping them coming back again and again, hour after miserable hour.)

    But success also resembles addiction in its effect on human relationships. People sacrifice their links with others for their true love, success. They travel for business on anniversaries; they miss Little League games and recitals while working long hours. Some forgo marriage for their careers—earning the appellation of being “married to their work”—even though a good relationship is more satisfying than any job.

    Many scholars, such as the psychologist Barbara Killinger, have shown that people willingly sacrifice their own well-being through overwork to keep getting hits of success. I know a thing or two about this: As I once found myself confessing to a close friend, “I would prefer to be special than happy.” He asked why. “Anyone can do the things it takes to be happy—going on vacation with family, relaxing with friends … but not everyone can accomplish great things.” My friend scoffed at this, but I started asking other people in my circles and found that I wasn’t unusual. Many of them had made the success addict’s choice of specialness over happiness. They (and sometimes I) would put off ordinary delights of relaxation and time with loved ones until after this project, or that promotion, when finally it would be time to rest.

    But, of course, that day never seemed to arrive.

    The desire for success may be inherent to human nature. The great American psychologist William James once noted, “We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind.” And success makes us attractive to others (that is, until we ruin our marriages).

    But specialness doesn’t come cheap. Apart from some reality-TV stars and other accidental celebrities, success is brutal work, and it requires sacrifices. In the 1980s, the physician Robert Goldman famously found that more than half of aspiring athletes would be willing to take a drug that would kill them in five years in exchange for winning every competition they entered today, “from the Olympic decathlon to the Mr. Universe.” Later research found that up to 14 percent of elite performers would accept a fatal cardiovascular condition in exchange for an Olympic gold medal—still a shockingly high number, in my estimation.

    We can find this choice in ancient myth, as well. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles must decide whether to fight in the Trojan War—promising certain physical death but a glorious legacy—or return to his home to live a long and happy life with his loved ones but die in obscurity. He describes his choice thusly:

    That two fates bear me on to the day of death.
    If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
    my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
    If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
    my pride, my glory dies ...

    Achilles, success addict par excellence, chooses death.

    Unfortunately, success is Sisyphean (to mix my Greek myths). The goal can’t be satisfied; most people never feel “successful enough.” The high only lasts a day or two, and then it’s on to the next goal. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, in which satisfaction wears off almost immediately and we must run on to the next reward to avoid the feeling of falling behind. This is why so many studies show that successful people are almost invariably jealous of people who are more successful.

    They should get off the treadmill. But quitting isn’t easy for addicts. For people hooked on substances, withdrawal can be an agonizing experience, both physically and psychologically. Anxiety and depression are very common after one quits alcoholic drinking, for example. Indeed, the novelist William Styron famously cited the cessation of his lifelong heavy drinking as part of the onset of the clinical depression he chronicled in his book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Some chalk this up to loneliness in the absence of alcohol—remember, it’s a relationship.

    Success addicts giving up their habit experience a kind of withdrawal as well. Research finds that depression and anxiety are common among elite athletes after their careers end; Olympic athletes, in particular, suffer from the “post-Olympic blues.” I saw this withdrawal all the time in my years as the president of a think tank in Washington, D.C. Prominent people in politics and media would step back from the limelight—sometimes of their own volition, sometimes not—and suffer mightily. They talked of virtually nothing but the old days. Many suffered from depression and anxiety.

    “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,” wrote Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 race-car driver. “For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line. His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead. In this case, there will not be life after success.”

    American culture valorizes overwork, which makes it easy to slip into a mindset that can breed success addiction. But if you’ve seen yourself in my description, don’t lose hope. There is plenty you can do to retrain yourself to chase happiness instead of success, no matter where you are in your life’s journey. Let me suggest that you consider three steps, whether you are at the peak of your career, trying to work your way up the ladder, or looking at success in the rearview mirror.

    The first step is an admission that as successful as you are, were, or hope to be in your life and work, you are not going to find true happiness on the hedonic treadmill of your professional life. You’ll find it in things that are deeply ordinary: enjoying a walk or a conversation with a loved one, instead of working that extra hour, for example. This is extremely difficult for many people. It feels almost like an admission of defeat for those who have spent their lives worshipping hard work and striving to outperform others. Social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success, but the research is clear that it strips us of life satisfaction.

    The second step is to make amends for any relationships you’ve compromised in the name of success. This is complicated, obviously. “Sorry about choosing tedious board meetings—which I don’t even remember now—over your ballet recitals” probably won’t get the job done. More effective is simply to start showing up. With relationships, actions speak louder than words, especially if your words have been fairly empty in the past.

    The last step is to find the right metrics of success. In business, people often say, “You are what you measure.” If you measure yourself only by the worldly rewards of money, power, and prestige, you’ll spend your life running on the hedonic treadmill and comparing yourself to others. I suggested better metrics in the inaugural “How to Build a Life” column, among them faith, family, and friendship. I also included work—but not work for the sake of outward achievement. Rather, it should be work that serves others and gives you a sense of personal meaning.

    Success in and of itself is not a bad thing, any more than wine is a bad thing. Both can bring fun and sweetness to life. But both become tyrannical when they are a substitute for—instead of a complement to—the relationships and love that should be at the center of our lives.

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  2. peakster

    peakster Star commenter

    Personally - no

    But I (briefly) worked with someone that was. My first PhD supervisor.

    I won't go into any details - but trust me ......

    After 6 months I'd had enough and I quit and went to work for someone else
    monicabilongame likes this.
  3. racroesus

    racroesus Star commenter

    I'm addicted to indolence.
  4. nomad

    nomad Star commenter

    "Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful." is a quote by Albert Schweitzer. And absolutely true.

    Another good quote is "Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it." (Henry David Thoreau).

    As a teacher I am not sure how I am supposed to measure my own success:

    Promotion and career development? Only if I was happy in what I was doing.

    Wealth? Not in teaching!

    Collecting academic qualifications? Not a measure of success as far as I am concerned.

    I suppose the best measure of the success of a teacher is the success of those they have taught.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2020
  5. Jamvic

    Jamvic Star commenter

    This is all predicated on very narrow and illusory definitions of success. It’s easy to be successful when your definition of success is achieving personal contentment. Contentment in life can be derived from very simple things. Time spent with family & friends, the enjoyment of study, nature, appreciation of music or books, caring for a pet, helping others, loving etc.

    True success is not what others see when they look in at you but what you see when you look in at yourself. That’s why the most brilliant career, the greatest riches or the highest accolades cannot, in isolation, bring as much contentment as genuine caring love, given freely, from a mother, father, child, significant other or true friend.

    So yes, I probably am a success addict but luckily for me I’ve never considered the concept of being successful as most people would define it. I’ve also never particularly needed the approval of others to be content or happy in my life and don’t suffer at all from the affliction of envy. These traits are helpful toward achieving contentment as one doesn’t tend to view life as some kind of competitive sport.
  6. lindenlea

    lindenlea Star commenter

    Interesting. I would add the common factor of needing approval which I would link with the need to please parents who might be withholding approval, attention or love. Also, a drive to collect achievements - which might be the same as "success" but feels like a broader definition. These drivers must be very common and I would not to stigmatise them by the use of the word "addiction". They are frequently occurring human characteristics.
    monicabilongame and Jamvic like this.
  7. Corvuscorax20

    Corvuscorax20 Senior commenter

    I've always thought that maintaining a moducum of ambition is part of being happy. I enjoy having a goal, it doesn't have to be major, just " do a good job of teaching this year" is enough, but \I don't think I would be so happy without any goal at all.

    I am very wary of SMT who talk about "relentless drive forward" as in my experience the relentless drive is more likely to be round in circles rather than in any defined direction...
  8. Jolly_Roger15

    Jolly_Roger15 Star commenter

    Me, too, but without your sense of urgency. ;)
  9. coffeekid

    coffeekid Star commenter

    Well now ALL I want to know is who is the "at least one"?
    nomad, monicabilongame and smoothnewt like this.
  10. smoothnewt

    smoothnewt Star commenter

    Not me, but I will confess to living vicariously through the achievements of husband and daughters.
    monicabilongame and coffeekid like this.
  11. Doitforfree

    Doitforfree Star commenter

    Me and my husband are really happy with the life we have. We're not materialistic and we know what we like, and we appreciate having the things that we like, which are mostly very modest, like being able to go out for the day, and having a lovely Hoover! But it always amuses me that when I express horror at the revoltingness of donye person or other in the news, my husband's first reaction is always to say, 'Yes, but look how much money they've got,' as if, in the back of his mind, money is the true arbiter of success.
  12. sbkrobson

    sbkrobson Star commenter

    Last edited: Aug 5, 2020
  13. smoothnewt

    smoothnewt Star commenter

    We have some lovely big houses near us, but when I pass them by out walking I tend to think: "All those rooms to clean. And what must the heating bill and upkeep costs be like!" And then there are security concerns: worries about burglary and fancy car theft. It would be all far too stressful for me!
  14. Jamvic

    Jamvic Star commenter

    Club 7? :)
  15. racroesus

    racroesus Star commenter

    Can we think of anyone trogging all the way from Scotland to the Royal Academy with a painting under their arm?
    coffeekid likes this.
  16. coffeekid

    coffeekid Star commenter

    I thought the OP was more about money. Which is something I've never had much of. ;-)
    racroesus likes this.
  17. magic surf bus

    magic surf bus Star commenter

  18. magic surf bus

    magic surf bus Star commenter

    I had an ultra-competitive Economics teacher at high school. Going thin on top a bit earlier than most and into sporty cars which he talked about incessantly in lessons, so maybe there was some sort of compensatory thing going on there. The school was at the top of a half-mile long hill, and he sometimes cycled to work. If he turned the corner at the bottom of the hill on his racing bike and saw a pupil weaving their way along about half way up it, he HAD to beat them to the gate. He'd stand on the peddles and surge up the slope, then swerve into the staff car park sweating, with veins throbbing on his temples, obviously feeling like he'd just won the Tour de France. On another occasion in a PE lesson the upper sixth were having a light-hearted Volleyball knock about versus the lower sixth, and Mr Economics turned up in PE kit (groan). He took it upon himself to become the upper sixth's mentor and captain who would lead us to an epic victory in a best of three match. Unfortunately the lower sixth beat us 2-1, and he stormed off the court in a purple tantrum like John MacEnroe at his brattish worst (bratwurst?) to the derisive hoots and jeers of "best out of five sir?" from the lower sixth victors. I never warmed to the man, and I failed 'A' Level Economics, which wouldn't have impressed him one bit. I take some comfort from that. :)
    monicabilongame and coffeekid like this.
  19. smoothnewt

    smoothnewt Star commenter

    @magic surf bus: Similarly, my late father-in-law taught Jeffrey Archer's sons at prep school. Apparently Archer senior used to turn up at the annual sports day wearing his spikes so as to have an advantage in the dads' race. :confused:
  20. WB

    WB Star commenter

    Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

    I've made up my mind to happy and I am.

    As a married man I realised very quickly that I had to pick between being right and being happy because a married man can't have both. Again, I'm happy even if we do have the wrong pump in the fish tank.
    monicabilongame and Jamvic like this.

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