How would you define “successful living”?
Is it to become a CEO? Or, is it to live in a woodland cabin equipped with high-speed wi-fi?
Whatever your notions of success, when I asked 2,500 Americans to “share the wisest quote you have heard or read, or share your own piece of wisdom” (as part of a nationwide study into what matters to us most), this is what people wrote (in reverse order of popularity):
1. Be yourself.
The top advice of three percent of Americans is to be yourself. Psychologists would agree: whenever we maintain a facade it threatens our well-being, as it limits our ability to appreciate our own strengths. Plus fibs about our nature can lead to questionable outcomes. For example: telling a date you love nightclubs, when you love not going out, can lead to sweaty misadventures of the techno-blaring kind.
2. Be curious.
Curiosity is the hallmark of scientists, artists, and pioneers driven by the belief that the pursuit of knowledge is the most satisfying way to live. Five percent of Americans chose “be curious” for their top lesson. One reason is that new experiences elevate our levels of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter.
3. Be playful.
Humor is a psychological coping technique born from adversity. That’s why comedians often hail from places like Detroit rather than Beverly Hills where hardships can entail running low on champagne. Six percent of Americans, among whom Midwesterners were overrepresented, advised us to be playful. Two of their favorite quotes? “Dance like no one is watching” and “A day without laughter is a day wasted” — the latter attributed to slapstick legend Charlie Chaplin.
4. Bad things happen.
Our world is predictably unpredictable. Earthquakes, traffic jams, tsunamis are side effects of living on a wobbly-crusted planet with over seven billion people. Bad things happen and life is often unfair. In my study, the majority of Americans agreed that in the U.S., bad things happen to good people, and good things often happen to villains.
5. Be persistent.
Forget genius: Greatness takes grit. That’s the word from scientists who say, “Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are . . . the result of intense practice for a minimum of ten years,” hence the allure of spurious shortcuts to success, from ordering fraudulent diplomas online (instead of attending four-year programs) to swallowing over-the-counter laxatives for weight loss (instead of altering your lifestyle). But if you want enduring success, the top lesson of eight percent of Americans is to be persistent.
6. Be responsible.
Among those who foremost advocated the lesson be responsible, their favorite quotes were:
- “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has” (Proverbs 21:20 NIV)
- “Common sense is not so common” (attributed to French philosopher Voltaire)
7. Be mindful.
In any given year, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of U.S. adults will have a mental health issue. Americans are stressed, in some places more than others. In my study, respondents residing in states such as Hawaii and Wyoming that rank highly in best-to-live polls seldom chose “be mindful” for their top lesson. This was less true of those in California and New Jersey, for whom a favorite quote was “Living one day at a time.”
8. Be all in.
The U.S. doesn’t do anything halfway. Case in point: the nation’s skyscrapers to its sky-high desserts. “Be all in” was always going to be in this countdown. This top quote of this group was “Live life to the fullest.”
9. Be hopeful.
According to data from the United Nations, the U.S. is one of the top countries in the world in which to fulfill your potential. But life here isn’t easy. Ten percent of respondents chose the lesson “be hopeful.” Their most cherished quotes were (in reverse order):
- “Don’t worry, be happy” (attributed to Indian guru Meher Baba and many others)
- “Everything happens for a reason” (not from the Bible, as many assume)
- “This too shall pass” (attributed to medieval Persian poets)
- “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NIV).
10. Be nice.
The number one life lesson of Americans is to be nice.
The nation’s number one quote? “Treat people as you wish to be treated,” known as the golden rule. It actually is golden because, when we all follow it, everyone can prosper. For example:
- An individual’s pursuit of happiness typically relies on others also being happy.
- Common courtesy makes us feel safer among strangers.
- Life feels more manageable when we can rely on the kindness and forgiveness of others.
- In many industries, niceness begets nicer tips.