How do you define success?
Granted, if you’re reading an article such as this your definition is likely to be more well thought out than many people.
So let’s phrase it this way:
How do you think most people define success?
Well, one way to answer this is to look at who society, specifically the media, celebrates beyond all others.
These people have two important characteristics:
- Riches beyond necessity
- International fame
It definitely is not what you and I may want to celebrate in people, such as one’s behavioural attributes and/or contributions towards society.
I’m fully aware, of course, that people such as this are celebrated in the media.
I’m speaking primarily of those who are most celebrated in public.
You see more magazine covers, more adverts, more billboards, more interviews and more attention going towards the latest pop star than you do the most innovative new philanthropist. We can accept this as fact.
Thus, we as a culture are led to assume that those which are most celebrated have achieved goals that are surely the most wanted by all, right?
If you were to put in front of the world as the cornerstone of achievement 5 people who achieved the ability to fly, surely you are suggesting these people have achieved a goal others would benefit from achieving, inspired and interested by, indicating they are doing well in life.
Whilst the relationship between money and happiness is a separate topic in itself, today I’d like to discuss with you the other question that the vast majority of people in western society do not ask themselves ever in their life:
Are famous people happy?
Note: If you would like to read this article at a later time, you can download this article as a PDF.
We would benefit from, firstly, defining what exactly we mean by ‘famous people’. I would define one as:
Someone who has a significant number of the general public aware of their name, appearance and the nature of their work, such that they would be recognised in public if noticed.
There’s a reason, unfortunately, why this topic is so fiercely misunderstood: it’s nearly impossible to study.
The most difficult group of people to study happiness on
The scientific study of happiness can broadly be done in two ways:
- Asking someone a number of specific questions to elicit their current levels of happiness in two categories: day to day happiness, and ‘life satisfaction’ (how they generally feel their life is going)
- Measuring biomarkers of happiness, such as cortisol level in one’s blood, saliva tests, analysing facial expression and so forth.
Now, a simple question: how many famous people do you think would be willing to do either of these?
There’s three sticking points when trying to measure happiness in famous people:
- There are so few famous people in the world, by definition. Therefore, they are hard to get in touch with and are likely to be less available to undertake assessments.
- The questionnaire method of assessing happiness is subjective, and for famous people it could be argued that their response will be more subjective than others, as they are aware that the results results are likely to be known by a large number of people.
- The other form of assessment, measuring biomarkers, is a test we might assume famous individuals may be reluctant to conduct, for multiple reasons.
I personally think scientific research on this topic would dramatically change the way we perceive success in our culture, but because it’s so difficult to study, as a species we continue to do what we seem to do best: follow the herd, allow others to provide our definitions, and accept a view of reality without questioning it.
Fortunately, we are not left with nothing.
Some preliminary research has shed a light on the possible causes and consequences of fame, and this provides the perfect foundation for a meaningful discussion.
The motivation for fame
To understand how fame and happiness are interlinked, it’s worth considering why, in the first place, someone would want to be famous.
One study in 2012 found that children between the age of 10 and 12 stated the goal of being famous solely for the purpose of being famous alone as the most popular goal they have, above achievement, financial success and community.
Other research done here in the UK found that 16% of 16 to 19 year olds currently believe they are going to be famous, and 11% are prepared to abandon formal education in pursuit of fame, regardless of any particular talent.
So the question is, why? Why this burning desire for fame?
Various answers have been given to date:
Dr John Maltby have done extensive research to look into the motive behind fame.
In one of his studies, he concluded there were 6 main influences that determine someone’s motive for fame:
- Intensity – how much a priority it is for you to be famous, how much it matters to you and how much you think you are suited to be famous etc.
- Vulnerability – how much fame would help you overcome issues about yourself, how much it would make you feel good etc.
- Celebrity lifestyle – how much you want others to know your name, recognise you, how much you want to be rich and be on magazines etc.
- Drive – how much you feel you’ve worked to be famous, how much you worked to develop a talent to deserve fame, how much you’ve planned for fame etc.
- Suitability – How much you think you’ve got what it takes (confidence, personality, character etc) to be famous.
- Altruistic – how much you want to be famous so you can provide better for your family, contribute to the wider community, become a good role model for others etc.
These, I feel, represent a comprehensive foundation to the different motivations behind fame. If you’ve ever wanted to be famous yourself, I’m sure you can find some of your desire for this elusive goal within these 6 broad categories.
The deeper question is, then, what causes these motivations, and what could this tell us about its relation with happiness.
Scott Barry Kaufman from the Imagine Institute within the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania described research which described how fame, as previous research has described, could emanate from the desire to relate and connect to other people.
As he states:
“To look deeper into these motivations, the researchers also measured the frequency of fantasizing about fame, and the perceived realism of becoming famous. They found that narcissistic folks focused on the recognition and elite status that fame offers, and believed future fame to be more realistic. In contrast, those with a heightened need to belong were attracted to all aspects of fame, except for a perceived belief in the realism of fame. For these folks, the central aspect of fame was fantasizing about fame and the imagined social worth fame would provide, perhaps providing these folks with a soothing escape from personal anxieties about social exclusion. Nevertheless, it seems that both those scoring high in narcissism and a high need for belonging share a common need to be seen and valued on a large scale.
Those scoring high in relatedness tended to score lower in narcissism and only showed an interest in prosocial fame. Therefore, it seems it’s important to distinguish between the need to belong— to feel positively and consistently connected to others– and the need to relate. Research shows that people with a high need for relatedness are not anxious about social exclusion, have a greater sense of security with their immediate social network, and are more confident that they are valued by others. In turn, they tend to report a positive mood, vitality, and well-being.”
Already we can see that the reasons for which people can desire fame vary, with a very real potential that it could stem from personal discontent.
Other theories have also gone to try and crack the question of what causes one to want to be famous.
Orville Gilbert Brim, the author of the book Look At Me! suggests that the desire for fame stems from a basic human need to be accepted and recognised by others.
In this fascinating short interview, he expands on his theory as to why, boldly saying:
“These millions of people who are so strongly motivated for fame are obviously different from the rest of the population. And what has happened is the fame motive has come out of the basic human need for acceptance and approval and when this need is not fulfilled because of rejection by parents, or adolescent peer groups, or others, a basic insecurity develops and emerges as the fame motive. Well, it turns out that fame is not the answer for the need for love and acceptance. The desire is never fulfilled. The search for fame remains, driven by that basic need.”
If you think about it, this does make sense.
If at some point during an individual’s childhood they experience deep rejection from their parents, with the known attachment children have to their parents as they grow up, it would be reasonable to suggest this could result in a longing to want to fulfill this emotional hole by getting into a position where millions of individuals all over the world adore and worship them, confirming that their very existence is accepted and loved.
Many people may crave fame for these reasons, but a couple things are also worth noting.
Firstly, we can’t assume that everyone who is famous actually wanted to be.
Especially in this day in age, if you are posting anything online of good quality, there is a higher chance it’ll be seen or heard by a wider audience than ever before.
There’s no doubt in my mind that in the recent past more people have become famous without wanting to be – thinking that their friends and family and a few other people out there might like what they’re doing, whether it be a drawing, a song, a documentary etc.
In this case you could argue that external recognition could have stemmed from a desire to share something interesting and high quality with the public, in the simple hope that they may derive happiness from it, in one way or another.
It’s very difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons someone would want to be famous, or why someone becomes famous. We’ve discussed some very possible conclusions to this question, with some early indication of how this related to happiness.
Fame as a fundamental goal
Fame is essentially a goal. It’s something one wishes to achieve. In the context of scientific research, we know there are primarily two types of goals:
Intrinsic goals – where the desire to achieve the goal results in an intrinsically satisfying result, such as a sense of fulfillment, meaningfulness, autonomy, relatedness etc.
Extrinsic goals – where the desire to achieve the goal results in external rewards, such as a desired opinion of another, acquiring physical objects such as wealth or medals etc.
We can see from these definitions that fame is undoubtedly an extrinsic goal.
Those who think ‘I want to be a singer so I can be famous’ are seeking an extrinsic reward.
They are wanting to sing for a living not primarily because of the joy of singing itself, which is an intrinsic goal, but the external reward of the being a known singer.
Multiple studies have found that prioritising extrinsic goals reduces well-being prioritising intrinsic goals increases well-being.
A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, called “The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life”, demonstrated this very succinctly.
The study concluded that having any type of goal increased one’s attainment towards the goal, but it was the type of goal one had that was important in resulting in increased or decreased well-being over a prolonged period of time:
“…whereas attainment of intrinsic aspirations related positively to psychological health, attainment of extrinsic aspirations did not; indeed, attainment of extrinsic aspirations related positively to indicators of ill-being”.
Another study done by researchers from five universities looked at the well-being in two countries, America and Russia, in relation to common pursuits which are often described as the ‘American Dream’.
The study, entitled “The American Dream in Russia: Extrinsic Aspirations and Well-Being in Two Cultures” found a similar conclusion:
“Results confirmed the relevance of the intrinsic-extrinsic distinction for both samples and that stronger importance and expectancies regarding extrinsic goals were negatively related to well-being, although these effects were weaker for Russian women. Furthermore, for both men and women, perceived attainment of intrinsic goals was associated with greater well-being, whereas this was not the case for perceived attainment of extrinsic goals”.
Further studies have also found that extrinsic oriented goals not only reduce happiness and well-being but also has an effect on one’s physical health.
From the University of Rochester, two researchers found:
“…the relative importance and efficacy of extrinsic aspirations for financial success, an appealing appearance, and social recognition were associated with lower vitality and self-actualization and more physical symptoms. Conversely, the relative importance and efficacy of intrinsic aspirations for self-acceptance, affiliation, community feeling, and physical health were associated with higher well-being and less distress”.
There is seemingly ample amount of data to show that extrinsic goals do not help people lead happier, more meaningful lives.
The question, however, is why?
The futility of extrinsic goals
The reason seems to be so simple it’s hard to believe we need scientific research to confirm it.
Extrinsic goals all rely on two elements:
- External results
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s take the goal of fame as a perfect example.
The statement, ‘I want to be an actor because I want to be famous’ implies that it is a goal that can only be realised in the future, and that to realise it one must have a notion in their head of what fame looks like to them.
Is it having one million followers, one hundred million, one billion?
Intrinsic goals are processed orientated and personal, therefore do not rely on time or an external stimulus.
For example, the motivation to eat well to maintain good health is something that can be completed today, and every day.
Therefore, some preliminary research is suggesting that extrinsic goals causes two cautionary secondary effects:
- An increased difficulty to appreciate and enjoy the current moment and/or activity because one’s mind if always fixated on future events and results.
- The sense of pleasure that one does experience when succeeding at their goal is short lived, as we begin to psychologically adapt to our new surrounding.
It seems to be the case then, that the story of fame and happiness is really a subset of a wider conversation about the relationship between all extrinsic goals and happiness, and the research thus far indicates these types of aims and desires may inhibit long-term happiness instead of assist it.
Fame is a fascinating topic to discuss, and as I said at the beginning, also one of the most difficult topics to study with true scientific rigour.
The research that is available to us suggests that psychological distress in childhood could lead to the desire of fame, and that the yearning to be famous may be correlated to characteristics of those who are less happy.
We know that fame is an external and elusive goal, and thus comes under the bracket of an extrinsic goal. The science shows that these types of goals can be harmful to our mental and physical well-being.
However, research in this topic is extremely limited, and there has been no studies as of yet that look at the happiness levels of those who have become famous without a specific desire to, which is likely to have only occurred in the recent past due to the internet.
There has also been no large study where the participants are actual famous people, as they are a subset group of people who would be more difficult to study as we discussed at the beginning.
From the early and small amount of information that is available to us, I conclude that fame as a goal in and of itself is not likely to increase one’s authentic, long-term happiness and sense of meaning in life, and that one would benefit from focusing on goals that are intrinsically interesting, meaningful and important.