I recently saw a survey of high school students in which over one-third of them said their goal in life was to become famous. A few years before reading the survey, my oldest daughter, now twenty, announced to me that her goal was to have fame. When I asked her what she wanted to be famous for she responded: "I don't know. I just want people to know my name."
We live in a culture where popular media often accords fame to people who have accomplished little or nothing of any great significance. What is Paris Hilton famous for exactly? And I'm not picking on Paris, I believe reality TV and a media culture obsessed with entertainment above all means that young people have come to believe that the path to happiness is having your fifteen minutes of glory where everyone knows your name.
In that same survey, one in five students said their goal in life was to make a difference in the world before they died. Would anyone want to guess which of those groups of young people are likely to find happiness? For one thing, we have little control over whether we become famous (except if we choose to do something destructive like Hitler or the Columbine shooters) and yet we have complete control over whether we give something to the world while we are here. What's more, if your goal is fame I guarantee no fame will ever be enough. There will always be someone more beautiful, more successful, or more famous than you.
I think of the wonderful story Sue Bender, the best selling author of Everyday Sacred, told about when her book became a New York Times Bestseller. When she called to tell a friend the good news, her friend immediately said "great but what number are you?" She realized in that moment that no matter what you achieve in life, if your measure of success comes from outside you will never be happy.
All the spiritual traditions throughout history have told us that the secret to happiness is to give, to be of service while we are here. This past year I tested that hypothesis when I asked 15,000 people to identify the one person they knew who had lived a long life and found true happiness. In the end we interviewed 235 people from 60-106 who other people said was the happiest person they knew. The things I learned about life from those interviews can be found in my new book, The Five Secrets You Must Discover before You Die.
When I asked these people where their greatest happiness came from, guess what they told me: Knowing you made a difference and feeling that something was better because you were here. For some it was their work, for some their children, and for others the simple act of living a kind, generous life. It seems the happiest people are almost always those who give not those who take. Have you noticed that the "famous" people who are out there trying to make the world a better place rarely wind up in rehab? I wonder why? Ironically, a number of the people I interviewed for the book were famous and to a person they told me: "Fame doesn't mean very much once you have it."
So maybe we need to give our young people a different message. Maybe we need media stories about people who are making a difference in their lives, small or large. Maybe if they were bombarded with stories about making a difference instead of making headlines for nothing of great significance, they would find more happiness.
By the way, my oldest daughter is in her third year of university now studying to become an art teacher. She hasn't mentioned the goal of being famous for a few years now and she seems a lot happier to me.