The current summary tag line of this site is “Celebrating Global Citizens in Search of an Excellent Life.” The pursuit of a better life has been an important focus for me over the last few years, there is an important question which I haven’t really addressed to any great extent – what is an excellent life? What does it take to be successful, fulfilled or personally satisfied in life?
On your deathbed, when you look back on your life, will you be happy with what you’ve accomplished? That is the ultimate question most of us will ask ourselves. The problem is that the question is too often asked when it is far too late to do anything about it.
I’m a Selfish Person
Travel and living abroad are fantastically enriching experiences on many levels, however, I don’t travel to make the world a better place. I do it entirely to satisfy my own interests.
I also enjoy playing guitar, reading, exercising, eating and other activities that are of no benefit to the outside world. I think that is okay, we all need to follow our own interests and do the things that bring us happiness, but I believe there is more to life than just hedonistic pursuits. Surely, a great life can’t only be about having fun all the time.
What does Success Mean in our Cultures?
So, what is an excellent life? Perhaps a better question is, what is success? What do you need to do or accomplish in your lifetime to look back without regrets and know that you did the best you could?
Success in many western countries is almost completely defined by what we consume. Success is a prestigious degree, a big house, fancy cars, vacationing at expensive resorts, eating at high-end restaurants and filling our lives with premium fashions, electronics and other goods. We have been convinced that we need more to be happy. Is the quantity of our possessions or our bank account balance, the ultimate measure of who we are?
Keeping up With the Indiana Jones’s
Now that consumption is widely accessible to all with a willingness to get into debt, we seem to be shifting to experiences. The new consumption is more about getting stamps in our passports, climbing mountains in distant countries, eating exotic foods, or doing challenging or dangerous activities like competing in distance races, going bungy jumping or doing Parkour.
There is nothing wrong with any of that, but aren’t we just trading the competitive consumption of things with the competitive consumption of experiences?
The things we buy and do are signals to attract and impress mates, colleagues, friends and family. Consumption and bravado are always going to be a major part of our cultures, but I don’t think they are particularly important factors on the path to an excellent life.
I Don’t Have Time to Follow My Dreams
I often hear people complain that they don’t have enough time, money or both. The question that always come’s to mind is, enough for what? What is it we are trying to accomplish with more time and money?
Many parents that I see, say they want to spend more time with their kids, yet they buy giant houses, expensive SUVs and all the other material goods required to assimilate in the typical suburban lifestyle. Both parents are often required to work long hours to pay for that consumption.
If the goal really were to spend more time with family and friends or on activities we love, wouldn’t it make sense to live in a smaller house, drive an older car and buy less possessions so we wouldn’t have to work so much?
A Great Life without the Shopping Mall
What I love most about traveling to different countries is that it helps question my cultural beliefs. Despite the growing homogenization of the world, there are still starkly different values and beliefs in other parts of the globe. “Success” is very different in Europe, Africa, Asia or South America.
This may be hard to believe but, some cultures still believe that family, health, community, the environment, leisure time and other things that money can’t buy are more important than material accumulation. Unfortunately, this is changing as western consumerism is being adopted all over the planet. I think we have more to learn from other countries, than lessons to teach.
Success is Simple.
It was only a few years ago when I defined myself by what I purchased. There was an implicit belief that I just needed to spend a little more money to be happy. A faster computer, a bigger TV or a more expensive stereo did bring some fleeting happiness, but it never lasted. There is always more to buy.
It wasn’t until my wife and I got rid of our business, house, car and most of our possessions that we really began to understand what is most important to our personal happiness.
First and foremost, health comes first. Eating home-cooked, food made from fresh ingredients and regular exercise are absolutely essential. If I don’t have time for exercise and good food, than my life’s priorities are messed up.
It only takes a minor injury to realize how precious and fragile our existence is on this planet. Have you ever had a toothache, sprained ankle, or other minor ailment? That little problem becomes the center of your universe and you’re unable to think of anything else until it is healed.
If health is so important, wouldn’t it make sense to take good care of ourselves? Regular exercise and a healthy diet rich with fresh fruits and vegetables is critical, yet, in many developed countries obesity has reached epidemic proportions. More than half of all serious illnesses are diet related. Heart problems, diabetes, even cancer are all largely avoidable with exercise and nutritious food.
Growing up as a child, watching TV commercials and seeing the meals many of my friends ate, I thought frozen, packaged foods were what success and affluence were about. It took well in to my adulthood to finally realize how little real food people eat in the west.
Compare the taste of a locally produced, vine ripened strawberry, grown without pesticides to what you can find in your local supermarket. There really is no comparison. Most of the food we eat is designed to look good, but is missing all the real flavours and nutrients.
So much of our lives have been shaped by profit-maximizing corporations, not our own best interests. There is a reason we don’t see many vegetable commercials on TV. A carrot can’t compete with a McHappy Meal in profitability.
Life is all about people. Humans are social animals. Our time spent with friends and family is all that we have on our short time on this planet. If we don’t make time for meaningful connections, what is the point of our lives? Is it to watch TV or shop?
Health and relationships are the most basic elements to a satisfying life, and often they are enough. If you’ve lost a loved one or have battled your own serious illness, you realize that you don’t really need much more than good health and the company of people you care about.
Higher Level Satisfaction
Good health and strong relationships go along way to creating a fulfilling life, however, there are other worthy things that we can strive for. Author Dan Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth of what Motivates Us says there are three factors that lead to personal satisfaction:
- Autonomy – the desire to control our own lives
- Mastery – the urge to get better at doing activities
- Contribution – making a difference
I’m a terrible employee. I need to control my own fate. If I work hard and create value for others, I make more money. If I don’t, I don’t deserve to get paid. Working for a regular salary doesn’t make sense for me. Nothing is more demotivating than putting in hours towards busy work you don’t believe in or think is a waste of time.
Many people think that passion is missing from their lives. I disagree, I think the key to satisfying work is having control over what we do and possessing the skills to do something really well. Any work can be fulfilling if we are giving it our best effort towards something of our own choosing.
Striving to be better at something is hugely rewarding. Whether you are trying to run a marathon, play the piano, grow your own vegetables or just excel at your job, constant improvement and mastery are immensely satisfying. You don’t always have to love your work, satisfaction comes from doing it well.
Ultimately, the secret to a meaningful and purposeful life is about giving back to society. I’m still lacking in this area. I want to dedicate more of my life to really helping people. Knowing you helped others, without expectation of reciprocity is extremely rewarding. As our economies continue to turn every human interaction into a financial transaction, I think we are losing sight of what is most valuable in life.
There are other things I value like art, music and travel. They are not absolutely essential, but they sure make life much more enjoyable.
Umair Haque of the Harvard Business Review, calls the good life, eudaimonic prosperity. Here is his take on what is most valuable in life.
The economy we have today will let you chow down on a supersize McBurger, check derivative prices on your latest smartphone, and drive your giant SUV down the block to buy a McMansion on hypercredit. It’s a vision of the good life that I call (a tiny gnat standing on the shoulders of the great Amartya Sen) hedonic opulence. And it’s a conception built in and for the industrial age: about having more. Now consider a different vision: maybe crafting a fine meal, to be accompanied by local, award-winning microbrewed beer your friends have brought over, and then walking back to the studio where you’re designing a building whose goal is nothing less than rivaling the Sagrada Familia. That’s an alternate vision, one I call eudaimonic prosperity, and it’s about living meaningfully well. Its purpose is not merely passive, slack-jawed “consuming” but living: doing, achieving, fulfilling, becoming, inspiring, transcending, creating, accomplishing — all the stuff that matters the most. See the difference? Opulence is Donald Trump. Eudaimonia is the Declaration of Independence.
What does success mean to you? Do you need a masters degree, a 5000 square foot house, an exotic sports car, 100 stamps in your passport or a book on the New York Times Best-Selling list to be successful?
Please let me know in the comments.