“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’” – Dalai Lama
“The story of any achiever is one of desire. All success, all achievement that is meaningful, and all success stories begin with desire. Desire grips people with an insatiable appetite for action. If you have sufficient desire to succeed, nothing can stop you from becoming a winner, a leader, or a high performer.” – Paul J. Meyer, Success Magazine
According to Buddhism, desire is a poison that is at the root of suffering. Yet desire seems to be what helps us to be successful. The two seem completely at odds. Do we really have to choose between contentment and success?
I think the answer to that question depends on our definition of success. We seem to know that money can’t buy happiness. Yet we are still pursuing the status house, car, clothes and job. $300 billion was spent on luxury goods in 2013. In other words, are we still trying to buy happiness despite what we seem to know, or is that stuff just coinciding with our pursuit of authentic happiness?
Regardless of whether our pursuit of happiness is occurring intentionally through or accidentally with material success, I would guess that for most people who pursue that affluent lifestyle as an end in itself, the hedonic treadmill rules their sense of well-being. In other words, that new car is nice but now I need that nicer new car. So instead of that car bringing pleasure in the long term, it only brings more desire and a sense of incompletion. That desire can develop a life of its own and somehow overrun our lives.
In contrast, if one defines success by their ability to have a positive impact in a way that is authentic to them, then desire can be used constructively without creating an inner void. For example, I might say that I want to be a brain surgeon because then I can save lives. That’s a great goal if standing in an OR for hours on end using fine motor skills in a high pressure setting is my idea of bliss. That is bliss for some people, hopefully for brain surgeons. But not for me. The key is to identify the unique way that I want to have a positive impact on the world. If I identify accurately identify my authentic path, then my desire to pursue my path will provide meaning, purpose and possibly success to my life.
“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” – Rumi
Note that the desire to pursue my authentic path is not focused on materialistic achievements, but rather on providing a meaningful purpose. Those who have the ability and the will to pursue that path will be more naturally motivated and therefore more likely to be successful in terms of rank and salary. Even better, a sense of well-being results from having a positive impact on the world and doing the things that you love each day. In a strange twist of synergy, being happy is more likely to make you successful.
“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.” – Dalai Lama