External Reality & Success: Why You Might Be Anxious

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success" by Deepak Chopra. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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On what do you base your success? Is your quest for success making you fearful and anxious?

Many people measure success in terms of how much they achieve or accumulate. According to best-selling author and world-renowned well-being practitioner Deepak Chopra, this definition of success—based on external reality—limits you and keeps you trapped in a cycle of achievement and accumulation that creates more anxiety than success. 

Here’s why an external focus creates a constant state of anxiety.

The Problem With Identifying With External Reality

Chopra claims that, when you don’t feel connected to the spiritual realm, you assume there’s nothing more to your reality than what you perceive. This narrow point of view encourages you to identify solely with what’s happening outside of you (the external reality), creates feelings of anxiety, and compels you to develop fear-based responses to your experiences. 

Connecting to God Leads to Inner Peace and Fulfillment

Chopra’s claim that your lack of connection to the spiritual realm leads to external identification, feelings of anxiety, and difficult life experiences lies at the heart of many dominant religions. For example, Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, explains that God created you to fulfill a specific purpose, which underlies the meaning of every aspect of your life. 

According to Warren, when you don’t trust that God has assigned you a specific purpose, you fail to understand the meaning of your life. This lack of trust allows a variety of factors—external (materialism), emotional (fear), and moral (false beliefs)—to motivate your thoughts and behaviors. Warren argues that these motivations destroy the possibility of peace in your life: You always feel anxious and unsure about your purpose on this earth, which causes you to find challenges in your life exceptionally difficult or meaningless.

On the other hand, when you believe that God has a purpose for you, you feel at peace. Warren claims that this is because instead of relying on different uncertain motivations, you can follow a single clear motivation: to fulfill God’s purpose for you. As a result, you understand the meaning of your life because you’re able to appreciate the significance of your every experience. 

Let’s clarify why your external focus creates a constant state of anxiety that leads to fear-based success.

You Allow Yourself to Be Influenced by Other People’s Opinions

Chopra explains that identifying with physical or external reality compels you to follow other people’s definitions of success and how they believe you should think, feel, or behave. As a result, you fall into the trap of trying to accumulate external symbols of success such as power, status, or wealth because you falsely believe that acquiring these things brings meaning to your life and creates long-term success.

(Shortform note: Jay Shetty (Think Like a Monk) sheds light on how external identification compels you to chase unsatisfying symbols of success. He explains how your family, friends, and culture influence you to conform to their expectations and make them happy: Since other people are nicer to you when you make them happy, you unconsciously conclude that your happiness depends on pleasing them. As a result, you tailor your behaviors and goals to fit their expectations. However, this preoccupation with pleasing others keeps you from choosing goals that make you feel happy.)

Your Attempts to Control Your External Circumstances Make You Feel Anxious

Chopra argues that the success you feel from acquiring and basing your identity on external symbols is fleeting because you feel successful only as long as they remain in your possession.

  • For example, imagine your job makes you feel successful because of your high status and salary. If you lose this job, you lose your status, salary, and feelings of success.

When your feelings of success depend on fleeting external experiences, you develop unhealthy fear-based responses to these experiences in an attempt to create and hold onto them. According to Chopra, these responses include: chasing the approval of others, controlling people or situations to get your own way, struggling or competing for what you want, and being overly protective of what you do manage to achieve or accumulate. However, your attempts to manipulate and force your reality into place just make you feel anxious and exhausted—unable to fully enjoy or appreciate what you do have.

The Desire for External Validation Motivates Status Goals

The Tao Te Ching, one of the ancient foundational texts of Taoism, clarifies why seeking external symbols of success encourages fear-based responses. It explains that your desire to receive external validation from others leads you to choose status-based goals, such as wealth and power, so that you can prove your worth to others. However, status-based goals are impossible to “achieve” since they rely on the idea that you should always aim for more (for instance, more money or higher status) to finally prove your worth and feel happy.

Your desire to fulfill this never-ending goal consumes you and surpasses your desire to feel happy now or to live harmoniously with other people. In other words, you focus all of your attention on achieving your goals instead of your overall well-being or the quality of your relationships. As a result, instead of accepting life as it happens and appreciating what’s going well, you fall into the trap of fear-based thinking—ignoring your emotional and physical health, isolating yourself from other people, engaging in competitive or controlling behaviors, or acting inauthentically—so that you can move up the ladder of success, prove your worth to others, and hopefully feel happy in the future. 
External Reality & Success: Why You Might Be Anxious

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success summary:

  • Why success isn't based on how much you achieve or accumulate
  • How true success comes from aligning with the flow of spiritual energy
  • Chopra's five methods for connecting with thought-energy

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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