Appreciating Success, In 15 Second Increments

Why is success so hard to hold onto? We work tirelessly, after all, at achieving our goals; why doesn’t the satisfaction of victory linger? God knows the bitterness of defeat can take ages to dissipate. I can think back with visceral horror on mistakes I made from years ago, on disappointments and failures, all of which my memory must keep packed in ice, because they feel eternally fresh. It’s easier, somehow, to kick myself for losing money when I was in college than it is to pat myself on the back for saving it for years.

At a party recently I ran into an author my age I admire. She is clever and accomplished, has a great-sounding job, lives in a hip neighborhood in a hip borough with a boyfriend, and her first book is coming out in a matter of months. After two minutes of small talk, I asked if we could speak frankly and she said sure.

“How does it feel to be on the other side of the book deal?” I asked. “Do you feel official now, inducted into the club? Do you wake up feeling better about yourself now than you did before?”

She considered for a moment and said, “Nope.” She smiled, shrugging a little. Not falsely modest, just honest. There are only different problems now, new problems. And newer, higher bars to clear.

Channeling Jazmine, I asked, “When will you know that you’ve made it?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, and then she smiled again. “When I’m Jazmine, I guess.”

Esme Weijung Wang writes thoughtfully about this issue, how to process the happiness component of success so that it does stick:

We indulge in a luxe meal, or buy a pretty new toy that lets us do our work more efficiently. But does this help our brains actually figure out the happiness component of success?

Unfortunately, no. According to Hanson’s book, “most good news has little or no lasting effect on implicit memory systems in the brain.” Implicit memory provides memory’s automatic functions. We want our memories and experiences of success to wear pretty little grooves into our neural networks… which, as it turns out, is a challenge. Our minds are designed to take positive experiences and store them as plain ol’ memories — memories that take time to move into long-term storage, and even then don’t help to remind us that we’re capable of achievement in a deeper sense.

Ugh. Shut up, brain, or I’ll stab you with a Q-tip.

Luckily, Wang has advice for how to work around our own neurological wiring — or rather, I guess, how to work with it.

So how, then, do we let our achievements become not mere facts to be rattled off or included in a CV for future use, but actual experiences that get bone-deep? That add to our sense of self? Our self-efficacy?

Well, we might give ourselves time to sit with the actual sensations of pleasure, of joy, and, well, of happiness that flit through — except that we try not to let them simply do a fly-by-night. We consciously let those feelings stay with us like an invited visitor for ten, fifteen, or even twenty seconds, as recommended by Hanson.

We have to concentrate on happiness, in other words. We have to stop, and breathe, and not multi-task, and focus, and be grateful: we have to work at being happy, the same way we work at, well, work. Have you tried this? Doewe have to work at being happy, the same way we work at, well, work.s it make a difference?

Image of female Saudi Olympian via Zero Drop

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