Being Great Isn’t That Great: The Inevitable Distorted Thinking Involved in Success and High Achievement

Why are we chronically unsatisfied?

Someone close to me once told me that she wanted to have everything she wanted all at once, to live in a utopic fantasy where all of her wishes lay manifest before her. For her, as long as life was missing something, it was missing everything. She attributed the deep void she perpetually felt to the missing pieces of her incomplete existence, asserting that once she discovered each possible contribution, she would finally feel complete.

Yet, this isn’t what we know about the select individuals who eventually fulfill their dreams. In the documentary Shangri-La, on the life of famed music producer Rick Rubin, Rubin and his colleagues grapple with the question of fulfillment, asking: is anyone really happy? Poignantly, in exploring the sources of depression with a famous musician, Rubin notes that artists are philosophers, or even mystics, in some sense because they get to peer into the exposed void, whereas the rest of us can only form crude inferences. Essentially, he meant that one in a million people reach the mountaintop of success, and those who do, according to Rubin, realize that even greatness doesn’t equate with happiness; beyond the farthest reaches of man’s attempts, behind all of the layers that ordinary people don’t posses the tools to peel, lies a fundamental emptiness, one that’s deeply existential.

We often hear or read about the hedonic treadmill, the notion that humans adapt to change, whether good or bad. The concept tells us that no matter how good something is, it will, invariably, become the new norm. But, why does that occur? According to evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright, we’ve evolved to be discontented because it helps us to survive. When everything is fine, you aren’t going to focus on sustaining your life and even less so on making babies. In this sense, nature keeps our genes alive. But in another, and this is likely linked to evolution, too, our neurotic minds eventually blanket us. Consider the women mentioned in the beginning, and think about what she actually believes. To her, the void is personal, just waiting to be filled. Once all of her goals are met, she maintains, she’ll be fully satisfied. But the hedonic treadmill stubbornly implies otherwise.

It may be that we build up achievements in our minds in order to pursue them. Hope, or the dopamine rush related to it, is intertwined with a magical conception, of how one achievement is going to stunningly change a life. For the purpose of motivation, our mind forms an idyllic image of our goal. And it likely does so to maintain resolve when the barriers to achievement feel unbearable, sort of like when you sustain a high degree of confidence despite all of the counter evidence. But, after the fact, after we slew the dragon and chained the monsters, when we aren’t hyper-focused on the task, we begin to ruminate about it. Did winning that award make me feel lovable or worthy? Did it make my many flaws somehow disappear? Was it the compensation I was seeking? When our flaws are aggrandized, our compensatory achievements are thus diminished. Nothing that I’ve achieved has made up for my lazy eye or lack of height. And nothing has ever made me believe that I’ve finally made it as a writer; actually, I can’t fathom what that could look like. So, how is it possible that someday, after an extended chase, I’ll finally find that thing, the holy grail of self-acceptance?

When you have a tendency to discount the positive aspects of your life and view the negative ones as untouchable, success doesn’t automatically negate your mindset. In this respect, you continue to find all of the holes in your achievements, or the reasons why they don’t seem to matter, and fail to seriously consider whether your flaws and failures are as significant as they appear. The hedonic treadmill causes us to adapt because our minds are the kings of spin; given enough time, they can make anything look terrible.

Avram Alpert, in his The Good-Enough Life, argues for a world that’s more positionally and economically equitable, meaning that the gaps in status and income are greatly reduced. He posits that in our greatness-oriented culture, all of us are miserable and terrified, even the ones at the very top of the proverbial pyramid. In agreement, I’d add that, psychologically, greatness only leads to momentary joy, if it does at all. If Rubin is right and no one is really happy, then why have we structured our society in a way wherein some are just more dissatisfied than others. Could it be that we’re repeatedly allowing our distorted minds to persuade us to act in ways that are, ultimately, counter-indicated because those achievements aid in survival and reproduction? Are all of us simply addicts? And if we are, are the ones who’ve experienced the biggest highs, like ascetics who’ve traversed the globe, warning us to turn back?

Check out our episode with Avram:

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