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What’s Your Definition of Success?

Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance – the blockbuster book that led a wide sweeping movement to ritualize the practice of gratitude in the mid-nineties – recently appeared on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday to discuss the rise and fall of her financial success, as well as her new book, Peace and Plenty.

Oprah led Sarah deep into a multifaceted conversation about what happens when you create “real wealth” and aren’t ready for it, the true meaning of success, and how knowing your inherent worth is indispensable to lasting serenity.

Given my investment in the success of women, you can only imagine how glued my eyes were to my TV as the dialogue unfolded. Despite watching it late night, I was rapt through the entire conversation. Oprah’s interview was intricate, beautiful, profound and strong. I was authentically impressed with the material the two women covered. It’s truly one of my personal favorite interviews of Oprah’s.

If you aren’t familiar with Sarah’s story, her book Simple Abundance sold 7 million copies worldwide and spent over two years on the New York Times bestsellers list. American women in particular flocked to the pink book in droves. The essence of this book – ritualizing gratitude – came at a time when both Main Street society and the folks in the ivory tower were hungry for a new approach to satisfaction. As Oprah said, Ban Breathnach’s book was a phenomenon coming at a time when people were thirsty for a new way to focus their day.

In the years after Simple Abundance made its splash, certain academic circles birthed the Positive Psychology movement– a rigorous approach to understanding subjective wellbeing from a scientific perspective– and gratitude became a central axis point for inquiry. Suddenly, happiness became a scientific study and scholars went deep into inquiry to discover how savoring moments actually contributes to wellbeing and success.

Positive Psychology scholars like Martin Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, Ed Deiner, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, amongst many others, deeply immersed themselves in understanding how gratitude contributes to happiness. The resulting research showed that not only does gratitude indeed increase happiness, but happiness, in turn, increases productivity, creativity, and other positive feelings that lead to creating successful outcomes. Academia proved that success in and of itself doesn’t increase happiness, which is an unfortunate kicker for those of us who’ve followed society’s formula for happiness. That’s why so many people continue to feel vacant despite achieving the right job, the right house or the right relationship.

The popularity of Simple Abundance led Sarah to wild financial success, and she quickly found herself living an extravagant, expensive lifestyle with little thought to potential “what ifs.” Unfortunately, despite being a fundamental part of a movement that swept America, Ban Breathnach soon found herself on a downward spiral. She lavishly spent her money, and admitted that she really never expected the financial windfall to end. Further, she coupled with a man who abused her emotionally and controlled her finances, and without any real awareness to what was happening, Sarah lost everything.

“I wish I had learned that life is cyclical; success goes in cycles,” Sarah explained to Oprah. Oprah used this comment like a key to a locked room, unfastening a deeper truth regarding the nature of success and Sarah’s relationship to it. After penetrating the subject from a few different angles, Oprah eventually landed on this nugget:

“True success is the feeling of reward and self respect that you feel for yourself.”

Ooooh! So good, right?

So, even though Ban Breathnach possessed all of the trappings of success, and influenced a powerful movement, somewhere inside she really didn’t feel successful.

Oprah explained, “The money is a metaphor and always is a metaphor for your true worth. To me, you handled the money as you saw yourself… The money and the acquisition of the money was all a metaphor for worth … for true worthiness.”

When I heard that, my jaw just about dropped to the floor. I wanted to scream, “YES! YES! YES!” but my man was asleep, so I stopped myself, despite my kneejerk desire to belt it out.

Given that I created a business around what the definition of success really means, and am devoting my life to helping women realize authentic success, I am constantly reminded how central the concept of self-worth really is to the happiness and health of all of us. The way we value ourselves absolutely dictates what we do with our time, our money, how we treat our bodies, and how we invite others to treat us, as well. When we lack self-regard, or compromise our core values, we are not taking a stand for our worth.  Ultimately, without fail, this affects our relationships with success emotionally, spiritually and materially.

Which leads me to wonder…

How clear are you on your unique definition of success?

For me, I’m with Oprah. To paraphrase, she says that true success is the feeling of reward and self-respect you inherently have for yourself. I definitely agree wholeheartedly, and this definition goes down as one of my all time favorites.

However, today I am pondering for myself ways that I can increase my experience of my own worth, and ways I can better respect myself.

What if I were to increase my self-regard by even 1%, what would change in my life?

I invite you to explore this idea with me. If you valued your inherent self-worth just 1% more, what would change in your life?

In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear your unique definition of success and your thoughts on how you can better honor it in your daily life?  Please feel free to share your comments below.

As always, I send you my love!



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  • Michele Anderson

    Jennifer, I learned about abundance from Sarah in the 90’s. I had no idea about the fall she encountered or her story. “Like wow” is what you say when you come out of something you didn’t realize was happening after the fall. I did that on a smaller scale, but the fall was just as hard. What an important lesson you and Oprah and Sarah have now shared. I will share what I’ve learned, too and we will help save the world by helping women who help us all. Thanks.

    • jenn

      Michele, What a beautiful mission you have. Isn’t interesting how the events that make up our lives don’t just happen to us, they happen for us, and if we can approach them from the perspective of service we see how they actually happen for all of us? Sarah’s story, and Oprah’s incredible interviewing really proliferate an important message- honoring ourselves and acknowledging our inherent worth is crux to true success.

      You are an incredible woman, no doubt contributing in a major way. Thanks so much for your comment! I send you all of my love… XOXO Jenn

  • Nitika

    Love this Jenn! I totally agree with Oprah and I also want to add that success for me is reflected in the way I treat other along with how I treat myself. I really don’t feel successful as a whole in my life if the way I am treating other people is not aligned with my divine truth. It’s so important to me that I feel like if I were to have all the money and fame in the world, but wasn’t able to take time to love and care for people I came in contact with, it just wouldn’t be worth it. So that’s a part of success for me too!

    • jenn

      I love that Nitika! Yes, it’s so true, right? Our community and relationships are an intricate part of our wellbeing. Research supports this. Scientifically we know that happiness is influenced by the quality of our relationships, and ultimately this plays a big part in our success too. It’s so nice to hear a definition of success that reflects this! Beautiful. Thanks for reading and commenting. Sending you love, Jenn

  • Weekend Coffee Talk: Mind, Body, Books & Business (#4)

    […] What’s Your Definition of Success? Jennifer Racioppi summarizes a conversation between Oprah and one of her guests (an author who earned then lost millions) on money as a proxy for “inner” wealth: […]

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