Americans’ Definition of Success Might Surprise You

Posted December 16th, 2014 at 1:23 pm (UTC-4)

(Photo by Tracy O via Flickr)

(Photo by Tracy Olson via Flickr)

America’s traditional definition of success is often thought to be associated with wealth, power and position. But when I posed the question of what defines success to family, friends and former colleagues on social media, the answers I received had little to do with any of those things.

“Having loving family and friends,” said one. “Not having to stress about paying bills. Making a living do what you enjoy.”

“At the end of the day,” said an old friend, “success for me will be whether or not I’ve raised my children to be caring, compassionate human beings and to know they’re raising their children to be the same.”

Infographic: See the different ways Americans define success (PDF)

Infographic: See the different ways Americans define success. Click to enlarge. (PDF)

“Success is how many lives you have affected positively to better their lives,” answered a former colleague.

It turns out those answers are in keeping with the majority of Americans. A study commissioned by Strayer University found that 90 percent of Americans define success as attaining personal goals and having good relationships with family and friends. Only 34 percent of American adults said being rich is important to them.

“What really is amazing to see in this survey is the collective shift that’s taken place with so many Americans now focusing on their well-being rather than just the conventional or textbook meanings of success,” said Dr. Michael Plater, president of Strayer University. “And through this redefinition, individuals are also finding that multiple paths to success exist, that it’s no longer a one-size-fits-all goal, it’s a personal journey.”

Seven out of 10 Americans believe successful people are focused and have a strong work ethic. More than three-fourths of the people polled said they consider themselves to be successful and more than half said they’ve accomplished most of their life goals.

The majority of Americans believe having a strong, supportive family network is more indicative of defining a successful person than ambition. (Photo by Sam Agnew via Flickr)

The majority of Americans believe having a strong, supportive family network is more indicative of defining a successful person than ambition. (Photo by Sam Agnew via Flickr)

The majority of people who describe themselves as successful believe having a strong, supportive family network defines a successful person more than ambition does.

“I think it’s actually very invigorating,” said Plater. “I think people are beginning to do what feels good for them…individuals are looking at their own lives through their own lenses as opposed to what society says should be right or wrong; they’re looking and saying ‘What makes sense for me as an individual?’”

There are some things Americans would change, given the chance.

More than half also said they’d alter some part of their career path, if they could, which suggests a level of dissatisfaction in America associated with people’s work or career.

The single biggest thing people would change is their education; 40 percent of Americans said they’d be interested in going back to college.

Other aspects of their lives Americans would do over include how they handle investments, savings, budgeting and spending.

The survey results were not broken down among different age groups, but it’s possible that some people’s definition of success changes with time, as it has for one of my former colleagues.

“The older you get, the more you measure success by health, relationships,” he said. “When you’re young, success is ‘How fast am I moving up the ladder?’ You later realize that climbing that ladder and climbing back down was an exercise and a symbol of success, but that true success is the sum of a million little details, interactions, moments of morality and a sense of well being as the sun gets lower on the horizon.”

5 responses to “Americans’ Definition of Success Might Surprise You”

  1. Mamadou says:

    I greatly appreciate your investigation about the matter of happiness. Myself I thing of happiness as a state when I am healthy and I could accomplish my wishes such as getting along in good terms with my family my colleagues at work and having a peace in my country.

  2. Emily says:

    Success means more to me as the ability to achieve self goals, to live the dreams, to make family happy and always have beloveds by one’s side. In developing country like Vietnam (where I am living now), I guess majority will reply that success also means earning enough money for their living and for supporting their family. Money matters.

  3. Peter says:

    No money can buy Health & Family. So if you have that, you are rich. But with the economy’s slow “recovery,” I suppose Americans have to look outside of their financial health to define success.

  4. larry thomason says:

    When we give the have nots water, shelter and a fishing pole I will know the world is on the rifgt track. I have the technologies to accomplish that task as well as other projects like the plastic in the oceans and the management of resources through new technologies. Social media whith out so much advertising and messing with peoples hormonal responsibilities. Nuff for now and a brighter future for all.


  5. G says:

    The emergence of success in the American Culture can be best described as people’s triumph of their achievements. Throughout American history prospects of success has been altering its priorities over time, but the general norm for success is the pursuit for happiness towards oneself and their loved ones. “Success can be defined as an achievement of something desired, deliberately planned, or endeavored, and also the gaining of fame, wealth, or respect.”( Presidential candidates are an example of successful people who display all successful virtues; success can be applied towards a person or persons financial, social-popularity, cultural-education status. To achieve successful status you would need to be determined to set out objectives that would set or improve your reputation.
    To put it into perspective, people recognize success through the subcategories of wealth and status; providing for the future generations; earning an educational profession; building a family status; accomplishing everything you set out to do; being placed into a position of status with power. Cultural-Popularity status could be earned through great numbers of good deeds; providing donations to charities (non-anonymously); providing hands-on voluntary services; sponsoring the public’s livelihood. In my opinion success can imply to wealth, but not viscera, because with wealth alone you only can achieve prosperity. Wealth does expedite and assists you in the endeavors towards a successful status. Success consists from a person’s motivation and determination whether they have the need to build a status.

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