There are several ways to look at the destructiveness of this maxim of our culture. First, let’s look at that small minority of people who achieve these goals. Are they happy? They certainly have everything money can buy, receive public adulation, and have enormous power.
But when one looks deeper into their lives, we find that they are instead often quite unhappy people. And contrary to most people’s expectation, they are even very insecure people. Thus their obsession with achieving fame, power, and fortune never ends because they constantly fear losing what they have and so strive to obtain more. They always worry that they are one step away from failure. This is not happiness.
Then there are the masses, from those who are poor to the almost rich, powerful, and famous. They are made to feel inadequate and a failure because of their inability to achieve these cultural goals. This seems to impact the poor the least, perhaps because it is so obviously unattainable for them that it doesn’t insert itself into their psyche as strongly. But as you go up the ladder of “success” and especially when you get to the almost rich, powerful and famous, people are more addicted to the need to achieve and they are more frustrated by their inability to attain what they want.
If following the call of our popular culture brings nothing but samsara, suffering, wherein lies happiness? In Buddhist teaching, happiness is said to come from offering others joy, from helping others with a pure intent, and being free of ego-cravings.
So before one is truly there for others, one must be there for oneself. If you do not feel loving kindness towards yourself, if you are not free of cravings, you cannot practice loving kindness towards others. You may go through the motions, and the impact on the other person may be beneficial, but because your actions are tainted by impure intent, you will not experience the benefit of true happiness.
As related more fully in a “Dear Buddha” post, “How To Know What to Do,” I discovered while meditating once what it is that I, and I believe all people, need to be happy and content:
1 Offer others joy … that is my purpose in life and the true purpose of all
2. Be in the company of loved ones and friends.
3. Respect my mind.
4. Respect my body.
5. Be in touch with nature.
6. Live within my means.
That is all. All else, everything the mind tells us we need to be happy is ego. Worse, if you strive for those things, you create endless samsara for yourself.
If one practices loving kindness towards yourself and towards others in this way, then regardless how poor one is, one will be happy. For happiness is not a question of material success, it’s a question of how spiritually one relates to oneself and the world around one. On the other hand, regardless how rich or famous or powerful you are, if you do not practice loving kindness towards yourself and others, you will never find happiness.
It’s not that one can’t be a “success” and be happy, it’s just that what one usually needs to do to become and remain a success is antithetical to this lesson of happiness. But if one is successful, and finally sees the light, and so stops striving for more and relating to oneself and others in the way necessary to be successful, then one can finally find happiness as I’ve described.