Religion & Liberty Online

Against idols of success: from self-indulgence to creative service

Propelled by an expansion in economic opportunity and the resounding cultural call to “follow your passion,” we increasingly imagine our work through lenses of calling, vocation, and “meaning-making.” From there, the competing philosophies of life abound.

For the Christian, such a development inspires us to orient our hearts beyond merely materialistic transactions, redefining our work not as a means of self-fulfillment, but rather as service to our neighbors and thus to God. When directed toward the call of Christ, our economic action is bound to bear plenty of fruit.

Yet modern American society presents another framework, through which “following our passions” means precisely that: a digression into isolated, atomized pursuits of self-actualization, in which economic opportunities are overly elevated into idols of choice and achievement. When this is the framework for “finding meaning” in our work, vice, emptiness, and anxiety are sure to follow.

In an essay in The Atlantic, economist Arthur Brooks argues that modern society glorifies addiction to “success,” leading many to overprioritize external achievements. Whether we are hooked on the thrill of accomplishment, the dopamine hits of public affirmation, or our illusions of noble devotion (we are “married to our work”), it can be easy to convince ourselves that particular economic or social ends are where true meaning is found.

“Success in and of itself is not a bad thing, any more than wine is a bad thing,” Brooks writes. “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.”

Citing a range of research (such as that of psychologist Barbara Killinger), Brooks observes that “people willingly sacrifice their own well-being through overwork to keep getting hits of success.” Despite these sacrifices, Brooks concludes, “The goal can’t be satisfied; most people never feel ‘successful enough.’” In turn, we are stuck in a “hedonic treadmill” that keeps us running until we are overly exasperated, hoping and pining for another high. Brooks compares this to what some psychologists have called the “post-Olympic blues” – a fog that leaves us lost in a world lacking our traditional milestones, metrics, and objectives.

As a solution, Brooks encourages us to “chase happiness instead of success, no matter where you are in your life’s journey.” He offers three clear recommendations for making this a reality:

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 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 end 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.

Brooks’ approach clearly represents a healthier approach than the narrower norms of status-seeking we tend to see in American life. Indeed, his recommended equation for a “happy life” – “faith + family + friends + work” – offers a grounded, well-rounded roadmap for whole-life flourishing.

Yet if our goal is ultimately “chasing happiness,” we are still likely to find ourselves stuck in the pursuit of self and all the baggage that comes with it. Wherever hedonism is given room to rule, we will find the hedonic treadmill humming in the background. Brooks seems to understand this, given that much of his argument is focused around love and centered around others.

But knowing this, might we tilt the emphasis a bit? Rather than chasing success and happiness, we’d do better to chase creative service – toward God, toward neighbor, and driven by a love that unites heart, mind, and hand. In shifting our perspective in this way, the key components Brooks elevates truly come to life, bringing meaning to life in return.

Rather than being torn between competing idols of self-actualization, we can instead shift our imaginations toward a deeper and fuller vision of work and service across all of our lives, one that has little regard for our own indulgence. It operates, instead, according to a bigger picture of loving our neighbor.

Once we realize that all is a gift – across family, business, community, culture, and religious life – we no longer strive after materialistic means, whether for status and fame or our own cozy feelings. To the contrary, our generosity will lead us to work, our work will lead us to creative service, and our creative service will lead us to more love, more fellowship, and more flourishing.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.