How do Americans define success? A new report by Populace and Gallup finds that while less than 10% of Americans personally define success in status-oriented, comparative or zero-sum ways, they largely believe other Americans do. The report also finds that there is a disconnect between Americans' perceptions of their attainment of personal success and what they believe society views as success.
Do Americans believe they are successful?
Many more Americans are achieving success according to their own views of success ("personal success") than what they believe to be society's views of success ("perceived societal success"). The average personal success score is 68 (on a 100-point scale), while the average perceived societal success score is 31.
Americans' personal success score varies widely depending on household income. Those with a lower household income tend to report lower success attainment than those with a higher household income, but this relationship flattens once household income reaches $75,000 to $99,999.
There are also ideological differences in Americans' personal success scores. Americans who identify as "very liberal" (with an average personal success score of 63) or "somewhat liberal" (66) tend to report less personal success than "somewhat conservative" (72) or "very conservative" (71) Americans. Moderates have an average personal success score of 70, only slightly less than those with conservative views.
How is success defined?
To measure how much importance Americans place on certain attributes for their definitions of personal and perceived societal success, respondents were shown two people's profiles. Each profile had six characteristics randomly selected from 76 attributes across eight domains (education, relationships, character, finance, health, work, quality of life and status). Respondents were asked which profile is more successful according to their personal definition of success and their perception of how others in society define success. Each respondent completed 12 choice-tasks drawn from the attribute pool.
The estimates produced from this approach are best understood in terms of a success pie, where each slice represents how much each domain contributes to the overall composition of success. The results offer more insight into the distinction Americans make between personal and perceived societal definitions of success.
The difference between how much Americans believe the "status" domain contributes to the overall understanding of personal and perceived success is substantial. Status drives the perceived definition of how others in society define success but is least important for one's personal definition of success.
After status, other top contributors to the overall composition of perceived societal success are education (19.8%) and finance (8.8%). In contrast, personal determinants of success are far more varied, with education (17.1%), relationships (15.6%) and character (15.4%) similarly important. Americans' personal views of success are far more balanced than the way Americans think others in society view success.
Different groups of Americans perceive success differently.
It is not surprising that different demographic groups perceive the relative importance of various attributes that compose the domains of success differently. For instance, compared with men, women assign modestly more importance to the attributes "is famous" (23.4% vs. 19.4%) and "has a large social media following" (4.3% vs. 3.3%) for the perceived societal definition of success. Taken together, this means women believe others in society assign more value to status as a signifier of success.
Differences in perceptions of success also vary by age. The composition of how younger Americans (aged 18 to 35) think others in society view success centers more on the top five attributes ("is famous," "has an advanced degree," "is a graduate of an elite college or university," "owns a business," "has a large social media following") than it does for respondents aged 65 and older (54.8% vs. 41.8%). This suggests that older Americans tend to possess a slightly more diverse view of how they think others in society define success.