What counts as success in life? That is, what is the measure of a successful life?
Success is a life well lived, a life that has enabled the person to flourish as much as circumstances permit. The last clause of the previous sentence – as much as circumstances permit – is essential. A person born into a famine-ravaged area of Africa will necessarily live a radically different life than a person born with affluent European parents. A person born to a crack addict mother is far more likely to have damaged genes than a person born to a healthy mother is; the former is also more likely to have few advantages individually and socially during her/his early formative years. In other words, external parameters over which a person had no control dramatically influence options for flourishing.
Human flourishing is not synonymous with gene propagation, i.e., having children. First, earth’s human population has neared or exceeded the maximum population of humans that the earth ability can sustainably carry. Consequently, promoting gene propagation – population growth – is not in the best interest of the planet or of humans. Second, not all humans have the resources or ability to parent well. A child born to such parents may actually diminish rather than enhance parental flourishing. This is not, however, a call for social or genetic engineering. Humans do not have sufficient wisdom to know which set of genes reared in what environment will contribute the most to future human flourishing.
Nor is human flourishing synonymous with material success. The size of a person’s dwelling, the number of dwellings a person owns, the type/number of vehicles owned, the size of financial holdings, or simply the quantity of stuff that a person possesses (filling garages, house, and rented storage facilities) seems to correlate with a meaningful measure of flourishing. I’ve known and ministered to too many unhappy affluent people to equate flourishing with material success.
Human flourishing, at a minimum, entails becoming as fully human, fully alive, as situationally as possible. This entails:
· Maximizing self-awareness or self-transcendence, enabling self-understanding and differentiation from what is not the self
· Developing one’s linguistic capacity, the capacity for cognitive thought and communication with others, both of which depend upon manipulating symbols
· Enjoying one’s aesthetic sense by identifying and cherishing beauty in self, others, and the world as a means to add pleasure, value, and new insights
· Engaging in creative acts to introduce novelty and innovation, seeking to enrich life qualitatively (aesthetically, pleasure, ease, material comfort, etc.) or quantitatively (longevity or gene propagation)
· Becoming progressively autonomous, exercising increasing control over one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
· Loving and being loved, to experience more of life through relationships.
Recently, I read Anthony de Mello’s Awareness, a posthumous collection of this well-known twentieth century spiritual writer’s material presented at retreats he conducted. De Mello emphasized that achievement, appreciation, and applause are not genuine sources of human success. Instead, he argued that humans should seek awareness or enlightenment, the latter term perhaps indicative of his roots and the context of much of his ministry having been in India.
De Mello also highlighted the existential loneliness of each human being, at times implicitly devaluing the importance of relationships. This may reflect his formation as a Jesuit Roman Catholic priest. Most (all?) humans seem to have an innate yearning for relationships with other humans. If those relationships prove less than satisfactory, then a human may invest that relational drive in pets or even an organization. But flourishing seems to invariably connote relationships, i.e., loving and being loved.