By Arthur Brooks

Special To The Washington Post

The American fascination with celebrity is strong. So strong that, as my Spanish wife has noted, even our serial killers get flattering biopics. (“Ted Bundy — a monster, yes, but what a brilliant, handsome guy!”)

The president of the United States rose to public consciousness not through a single minute of public service but rather via reality television. In a world dominated by social media, people increasingly don’t even have to do anything to be sought-after public figures. In 1968, when Andy Warhol predicted a future in which everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes, it sounded ridiculous; today it sounds increasingly plausible.

And fame is all we really want, isn’t it? All the twisted, celebrity-obsessed aspects of American culture and politics are just a mirror of our own unfulfilled desires to be loved and admired by millions, right? Wrong. The truth is that, despite our prurient interest in celebrities, the overwhelming majority of people do not want to be famous, and the minority of people who truly desire fame are abnormal.

Consider the evidence. The think tank Populace has published an important new study that uses data collected by Gallup about what Americans believe constitutes “success.” Among a nationally representative sample of 5,242 Americans, 92% said fame is part of how they think other people define success.

But here’s the report’s really interesting finding: Only 3% said that fame is how they themselves define their own personal success. Instead, 97% picked this definition: “A person is successful if they have followed their own interests and talents to become the best they can be at what they care about most.”

This is not to say people don’t seek recognition for their accomplishments. “We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows,” wrote the great American philosopher and psychologist William James in 1890, “but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind.” University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman has shown that accomplishment is a source of human happiness.

However, as most of us come to realize as we grow up, recognition by peers for a job well done transforms into a pathology — and a source of unhappiness — when it becomes a need to be admired by thousands or millions of strangers. Meanwhile, “extrinsic goals,” such as fame lead to “lower vitality and self-actualization and more physical symptoms.”

Why? To begin with, fame is Sisyphean. The goal can’t be satisfied; no one is ever “famous enough.”

“Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame” — that’s philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in 1851, roughly a century and a half before Twitter launched.

Meanwhile, staying in the public eye is grinding work. A musician of some renown once told me that getting and staying famous is a miserable combination of drudgery and terror.

Furthermore, the attention of strangers is rarely purely positive. Celebrities sometimes attest that the public relishes their failures as much as their successes. After all, admiration and envy are perilously close emotions.

There are many good and healthy famous people, of course. But the Populace survey showed that fame per se is not what normal, well-adjusted adults seek. It’s fair to speculate that those who do chase fame for its own sake immaturely define success as they think others see it, or have something psychologically amiss.

That first category contains a lot of children, who are especially prone to peer effects and social pressure. Indeed, one study from 2006 found that fame for its own sake was the most popular future goal for children under age 10. Most people grow out of this childishness and learn to pursue their own happiness, although I worry that the modern world is making it harder to detect fame’s empty promises.

Who is in the second, psychologically amiss category — those who evidently make up the 3% who equate success and fame in their own lives? Psychologists who have studied the subject have found a particular desire for fame among narcissists, people who are unusually socially insecure and those especially afraid of death. In general, these are not the people we want ourselves or our children to be, nor those whom we want as leaders.

In sum, America could use a better conversation about fame. People need to know that working to attain fame for its own sake is not normal at all. We should teach children that happiness is possible despite fame but never because of it; and that fame should be only a rare byproduct of good work. Most important, we should avoid leaders in politics and culture who have this definition of personal success.

— Arthur Brooks is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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