“I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living, so different now from how it seemed….now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
When Susan Boyle first sang those lyrics on the stage of Britain’s Got Talent, they seemed to herald a lifelong dream come true.
They take on a different meaning now that her meteoric rise to fame has landed her in the hospital. At the time I’m writing this, Boyle is being treated for a nervous breakdown. Her reported last words at Britain’s Got Talent: “I hate this show.”
Why did the story have to end this way? As we watched her triumphant debut, the crowd’s standing ovation, and the judges’ sentimental praise, we all felt that a life was being changed before our eyes.
And so it was. Susan Boyle’s performance earned her instant fame and wide acclaim. There was talk of book deals and record deals. Even her image got an upgrade, thanks to a Hollywood-style makeover.
It was everything an aspiring singer could hope for. And that may be exactly why things went wrong for Susan Boyle.
We expect that when our dreams come true, happiness will at last be ours. But a new study by psychologists at the University of Rochester, NY, finds exactly the opposite. Achieving fame, wealth, and beauty does not guarantee happiness. Instead, it can be a quick road to hell.
For this study, the researchers asked 246 adults to rate the importance of six life goals: three that sound pretty wholesome (to be physically healthy, to grow and learn new things, to help others improve their lives), as well as three goals that sound more like the modern American (Idol) dream: to be wealthy, to be admired by many people, and to achieve a desired appearance.
One year later, researchers checked in to find out how well the participants had attained their goals. They also tracked how happy and healthy the participant were. Those who pursued and attained the more wholesome goals were, as you might expect, feeling great. But attaining fame, money, or appearance had absolutely no relationship to happiness. There was no boost in self-esteem, satisfaction with life, or mood. The more participants succeeded at these goals, the worse off they were: higher anxiety, worse mood, and more health problems.
How does success turn into depression? Consider it a contrast effect. No matter what spiritual or psychological advice we are given, it’s almost impossible to imagine we won’t be happier when we’re famous, wealthy, and beautiful. In modern society, we accept as self-evident that stardom leads to happiness. This belief is part of our collective story about how the world works. Talent discovery shows—like Britain’s Got Talent or American Idol—are popular in part because they tap into and exploit this deeply-held belief.
But while some accomplishments are truly satisfying, the rewards of fame, fortune, and image are all smoke and mirrors. They look wonderful from the outside, but from the inside, you can see through the illusion. Instant fame is a poor substitute for real connection. Personal fortune is less nourishing than personal growth. And a makeover is a shallow achievement—even for a 48-year-old Scotswoman who claims to have never been kissed.
What we’ve witnessed in the reality TV journey of Susan Boyle is the cruelest kind of reality check. When a lifelong dream comes true, and the gap between what you expected and what you experience is so vast, the only rational response is a breakdown.
Many of us fear that we will never achieve a lifelong dream that seems out of reach. But perhaps we should be more afraid that we spend our lives chasing goals that cannot provide lasting happiness.
The same study points to how we might achieve more satisfying happiness: participants who pursued learning, community, and health were better off over time. It might be time to take a look at your own goals, and devote your energy to the less glamorous but reliably rewarding sources of well-being.
The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life. Christopher P. Niemiec, Richard M. Ryana, and Edward L. Deci. Journal of Research in Personality 43 (June 2009) 291–306.