If we only knew. If we only knew how happiness works. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? So many of us continue to ask the question, “What would make me happy?” Of course, by asking the question, you inevitably proceed to brainstorm potential answers. Is it family? Is it status? Fame? Education? Income? A nice car? A big house? Being successful? What on earth is it?

Here’s the first (bonus!) sign of a successful life right out of the gate: you are happy. Success IS happiness. Happiness IS success. But because this is an article and not a platitude, we’ll dig a little deeper.

Again, if you are successful, you will have a happy life. If you are happy, you already have a successful life. For those who don’t fit into one of these two groups, there is hope. If you take the time to define success – and what that word means to you, you’ll have a happy life. Take note of the keywords in the preceding sentence: if, you, define. Let’s provide some context to those three words.

IF: Not everyone contemplates their success – or lack thereof. Those who don’t will find both success and happiness to be elusive.

YOU: Success is highly individualistic. It’s clear that society doesn’t know a darned thing about it. How many people are living in abject misery despite their “success”?

DEFINE: Once you’ve decided that success is worth considering, you must, of course, define what it means.

In this article, we’re going to talk about eight signs of a successful life that have nothing to do with money. First, let us talk about what success is not.

Success Isn’t What Most People Think

Here’s a question worth contemplating: Who or what has shaped how you view success? If you’re like most people, you need to give this question plenty of thought; even then, you may not come up with anything concrete.

There are a few reasons why answering the above question may prove elusive. Here are some:

– Subconscious programming: We must account for the first 6-7 years of life when a child is “taking in” the massive world around them. Of course, these memories are buried way down.

– Lack of input: If you’ve never grasped the notion of success and what it entails, your brain won’t produce much more than a surface, knee-jerk response – if any response at all.

– Fear or bias: Your situation in life, if it doesn’t match up well with your definition of success, may cause your brain to repress a response out of fear. We must also account for any cognitive bias(es), known or unknown.

Many (most?) of those who do manage to come up with a response to the question “Who or what has shaped how you view success?” probably came up with the same ole’ stuff: prestige, status, money, career, and so forth.

You can’t blame yourself for thinking this way. You were bamboozled. Hoodwinked into buying a pipe dream.

You may be thinking “Yeah…that’s what people who don’t have (x, y, and z) say!” This is a normal response – and it even has an element of truth (more on this later). But it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

What Society Says: A Short Interlude

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” – Jim Carrey (source)

How have many rich, famous, “successful” people turned out to be living in abject misery? I’m sure that these folks thought that attention, status, and/or money would bring them that elusive happiness.

What the hell does “society” know about success much less happiness?

What the Science Says

“…numerous studies have shown that happy people tend to be successful across multiple domains … including work performance, health, income, friendship, and even marriage. … happiness is associated with and precedes … successful outcomes.” – Lyubomirsky, et al (emphases added).

Let’s unpack the above two findings from multiple studies which span years of research:

  1. Researchers concur that happy and successful individuals tend to be happy successful across a wide variety of domains – health and relationships among them.
  2. The happiness and well-being of successful individuals usually come before – and, arguably, as a prerequisite of – most success, they’ve had.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the years of study, including in the Positive Psychology arena, is that happiness and success are mutually inclusive. We established this mutuality in the earlier parts of the article – and it’s proven again here.

Let’s get a bit more specific with it.

Here are eight signs of a successful life that have nothing to do with cash:

1. Your Success Is Self-Defined

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” – Herman Melville (source)

It’s worth repeating: society doesn’t know everything about success. Constructing a framework of success based solely on societal influences is a recipe for an unhappy – and thus, unsuccessful – life.

Some people are fortunate enough to know exactly what comprises a successful life for them (lucky, indeed!). For the rest of us, finding our own success comes through a period for introspection and, of course, trial and error.

2. Failure Doesn’t Stop You

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill (source)

One of the most frustrating life callings is that of a creative visionary – an “inventor.” In this respect, Thomas Edison is perhaps the most famous, accomplished inventor in history. It is safe to assume that Edison’s relentlessness in the face of failure is what propelled him to the history books. Indeed, these failures may have been the catalyst of Edison’s quote, “Success is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

3. You Do No Harm

“Primum non nocerum.” (First, do no harm.) – Hippocrates (source)

Wall Street bankers – and the institutions they work for – can be considered by many some of the most injurious entities on the planet. These people are mostly to blame for the 2008 housing crisis leading to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Yet, if you were to ask someone passing by if they consider these folks to be successful, far more people would answer in the affirmative. How can one be successful at the expense of so many?  This question begs contemplation.

4. You Enjoy Your Work

“Do what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” – Unknown

People who love their “job” are some of the most grateful people alive. Far too many of us slog through our workday, counting down the minutes until we can go home. If, at the present time, you find yourself in a less-than-desirable position, you can become more successful by following the next sign of successful people (so read on!).

5. You Manage Your Attention

“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely you will become interested in it.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (source)

First, re-read the above quote. Write it down. Commit it to memory. It’s that powerful. Moving on…

Attention is where you choose to place the spotlight of awareness. Prolonged effective management of attention leads to states of concentration, or the ability to focus exclusively on a chosen target, object, event, or situation. When you actively manage attention, you not only deepen your concentration abilities but become more resistant to autopilot mode. This maturing of your attention and concentration will drastically improve your life situation.

6. You’re Selfless

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi exemplifies the interrelationship between selflessness, service, and success. He may not have had a bunch of money, but he didn’t need it. He was still able, through the power of his words and character, to unite a country in the fight against racial discrimination and help end the British occupation of India.

Selflessness requires continuous intense effort as well as firm belief in a cause bigger than themselves. It’s no surprise, then, that we find some of the most selfless, successful individuals in fields like teaching, counseling, and government.

7. You Meditate

“Some research shows that the way meditation helps your brain to work better is consistent, staying with you not just when you’re sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed, but all the time.” – Annie Mueller, Lifehack (source)

Many of the problems that we have, including those that obstruct our happiness and success, are caused by a lack of awareness. On average, the human mind wanders about half of the time. Multiple studies link mind-wandering with unhappiness (thus, unsuccess.)

Most meditation techniques are rooted in mindfulness – the ability to recognize a wandering mind and bring it back to the focus of attention. Many, perhaps most, people who call themselves successful have a regular meditation or mindfulness practice because it trains the mind to become much less responsive and habitual.


8. You Don’t Try So Hard

“Don’t try.” – Charles Bukowski, Jr.

Make an effort. Have goals. But don’t go crazy trying to achieve them. While you may end up a “success” in the eyes of the world, you’ll bring disappointment to the only person whose opinion truly matters: yourself.

The end.