The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It

Perfectionism is a big problem today among ambitious professionals—and increasingly among young people in general. It’s also widely misunderstood, and even misappropriated as a badge of honor by some.

Let’s break it down. First, what is it?

Perfectionism entails striving to be flawless. It typically includes overly critical self-evaluations and excessive concerns about negative evaluations from others.

Perfectionism entails striving for unrealistic or even unattainable goals, followed by disappointment when we fail to achieve them. That’s followed by cognitive dissonance from misalignment between perfect self-identity and imperfect performance. For a perfectionist, low performance automatically means low self-worth.

Fundamentally, the assumption behind perfectionism is that the only route to self-acceptance and peace is flawlessness. It’s less about a desire for self-improvement and much more about seeking acceptance and approval. It entails conflating our identity and worth with our performance and accomplishments.

 

Signs of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is common. There are many signs of it that we can see all around us if we look:

  • Having unrealistic standards or expectations
  • Striving to be flawless
  • Fixating on mistakes
  • Being overly critical of yourself and not feeling good enough
  • Judging others excessively
  • Having low self-esteem and self-identifying as a loser
  • Being overly cautious and feeling afraid to fail
  • Wanting to control situations to avoid negative judgment
  • Feeling defensive about feedback
  • Being prone to blame ourselves, even when we’re not at fault
  • Feeling pushed toward goals by a fear of missing them, versus being pulled toward the prospect of reaching them
  • Focusing exclusively on results, while not being able to enjoy the process of trying, learning, and growing

Perfectionists can be consumed with self-monitoring and carefully managing their impressions—and sometimes with rumination and self-recrimination. They’re especially sensitive even to the potential for negative (or even not positive enough) judgment by others and for rejection.

Perfectionism is a problem because perfection is an impossible standard for those of us who don’t wear a cape.

Perfectionists are under a regular barrage of self-imposed pressure. They put up a front of flawlessness and purity in part to hide their flaws. In some cases, they’re prone to all-or-nothing thinking, in which only perfection is acceptable. Otherwise, they remove themselves entirely from the situation.

We should be clear about the downsides of perfectionism while also being understanding of its causes and compassionate about the suffering that comes with it. According to the research, many perfectionists learned this mindset in their formative years, with conditional acceptance from parents or other guardians: I love you when you behave as I expect, and I don’t when you don’t.

This conditional giving and taking of love and acceptance can be quite painful, and even traumatic, for children. Some parents withhold affection or abandon their children (emotionally or physically). Others control their children. These behaviors can instill perfectionist beliefs and tendencies.

 

Perfectionism on the Rise

According to recent research, perfectionism is increasing among young people, and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of children and adolescents are prone to perfectionism. It’s not surprising in our age of social media and influencers—and the impossible comparisons they tee up.

In a meta-analysis of perfectionism rates among more than 40,000 college students from 1989 to 2016 (the first such study of its kind), researchers found significant increases among recent undergraduates in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. The rates doubled, from 9 to 18 percent, over that period.

“On average,” said Andrew Hill (one of the researchers), “young people are more perfectionistic than they used to be,” and “the belief that other people expect you to be perfect has increased the most.”

Researcher Brene Brown suggests that perfectionism isn’t a binary matter in which we either have it or we don’t. Rather, she suggests that we all fall on a continuum of perfectionistic tendencies, ranging from occasional and situational bouts of it to “compulsive, chronic, and debilitating” versions of it. Ouch.

 

The Consequences of Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” -Anne Wilson Schaef

How does it affect us? Turns out, it can be quite debilitating.

In a nutshell, perfectionism leads to lower achievement along with more stress. A double whammy.

Perfectionism inhibits our work.

Perfectionism harms our relationships.

Perfectionism causes needless suffering.

Even worse, there’s a negative spiral at work. Perfectionists will face a new or challenging situation and hear all sorts of psychological alarm bells. There will be a fear of failing and looking bad. In trying something new, they’ll see that they’re not good at it from the start (which is true for nearly all of us), leading them to quit. So they rarely stick with new things. They prefer their comfort zone. This “life paralysis” entails missing an array of opportunities due to their fear of falling short.

“To be a learner, you’ve got to be willing to be a fool.” -George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

Given their tendency to fall short of their impossible standards, they can also start to develop an impression of themselves as failures, spinning a negative tale about their past that comes to haunt them going forward.

Perfectionism can reduce not only productivity but also creativity, inspiration, and joy. Insidiously, it can lead to procrastination, with people postponing tasks due to the potential negative judgment that can come from falling short. This “perfectionism-procrastination loop” as it’s called can lead to reduced productivity and missed deadlines, as perfectionists focus too much on unimportant details and lose sight of the big picture.

 

Perfectionism can have perverse unintended consequences. Though perfectionists are aiming to avoid social rejection by appearing flawless, sometimes they come across as aloof and inauthentic, thereby leading to social disconnection, the very thing they wanted to avoid in the first place. It can lead to estrangement or alienation from others as well as from our authentic self.

It gets worse. According to a meta-analysis of 284 studies and other research, perfectionism is correlated with anxiety, substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, clinical depression, self-harm, and suicide. In the research, it’s linked with psychological distress and low self-esteem, as well as with fear of failure (see my article on “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear”) and workaholism.

 

Badge of Honor?

These days, perfectionism is widely misunderstood. Unfortunately, some people wear the perfectionist label as a badge of honor, perhaps to diminish the downsides while highlighting the benefits, such as attention to quality and detail. But it’s not a badge of honor.

Here we must distinguish between perfection (which is impossible in human pursuits) and perfectionism, and between the pursuit of excellence (which is positive) and perfectionism (which can be quite harmful).

Perfectionism ≠ the pursuit of excellence.

Perfectionism ≠ striving to be your best.

Perfectionism is maladaptive and self-destructive.

“Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.” -Professor Andrew Hill, York St. John University

It’s even a standard answer to the dreaded job interview question of “What are your weaknesses?” or “What are your worst traits?” Many people answer that they’re perfectionists, hoping that the interviewer will take it as a positive since it shows they’re so committed to high standards and to details.

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

What to Do About It

We know it’s common and that it operates on a spectrum. So what to do about it? Here are nine research-based tips:

  1. Practice “self-compassion”: extending kindness and understanding to ourselves when encountering setbacks or failures, recognizing these are universal.
  2. Engage in positive self-talk: an inner voice that focuses more on potential and growth and less on critique and deficit.
  3. Learn to value the importance of process more, versus an exclusive focus on results (many of which are not fully in our control).
  4. Adopt a growth mindset (belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed), instead of a fixed mindset (belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents are static and cannot be changed).
  5. Develop what Brene Brown calls “shame resilience”: an “ability to recognize shame when we experience it, and move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain authenticity and grow from our experiences.”
  6. Practice mindfulness: a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and environment, ideally through a gentle, nurturing, and nonjudgmental lens.
  7. Use a checklist for discrete tasks, instead of focusing on an amorphous (and impossible) standard of perfection, allowing you to see the progress you’re making along the way. Enjoy the feeling of progress, and ideally see it visually on a progress board.
  8. Monitor progress by using a regular review (weekly or another interval) to show steps forward and give you some psychological distance from the current distress associated with feeling unworthy.
  9. Unpack your past successes and revisit the processes you used to make progress and overcome obstacles, while also remembering that there were no guarantees of success along the way. This should help you get good at overcoming fear.

 

The “Gifts of Imperfection”

No doubt perfectionism is a formidable foe, and a powerful inhibitor of our wellbeing. I like how Brene Brown flips the script and talks about the “gifts of imperfection.” That’s right: the gifts.

She notes that our imperfections make us human. And they can bring us unexpected benefits, such as courage (to be who we truly are even when we fear judgment or disappointment), compassion (to see that everyone has their own struggles), and connection (to recognize our shared humanity and see ourselves in the real stories of others, with their messy ups and downs).

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you falling into some of the traps of perfectionism? (Or your friends and colleagues?)
  • How is it showing up in your life and work?
  • Which of the nine perfectionism trap busters noted above are you game to try?

Let me know how it goes. I wish you well with it.

 


Postscript: Quotations on Perfectionism

  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “There is no perfection, only beautiful versions of brokenness.” -Shannon L. Alder
  • “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” -Michael Law
  • “Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly—and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner’s work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn’t know how to say, ‘Good try,’ or ‘Job well done.’” -Julia Cameron, Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance

 

Recommended Books:

Note: Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has identified nine mental “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. Several of them relate to perfectionism:

  • Judge: constantly finding fault with self, others, or circumstances. (This is the “master saboteur,” according to Chamine.)
  • Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts.
  • Stickler: excessively needing perfection, order, and organization.
  • Pleaser: trying to gain acceptance by helping, pleasing, or saving others.
  • Controller: anxiously needing to control situations or others.
  • Hyper-achiever: depending on constant achievement for self-acceptance.

 

Related Articles:

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter, access his manifesto on the Common Traps of Living, or check out his TEDx talk.

 

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, perfectionism, gifts of imperfection, positive intelligence

Are You Living a Divided Life?

The young woman in a corporate job whose true love is animals. Unless she makes a change, she’s looking at a long slog in her career.

A young college graduate on the business track who discovers he has no real interest in any of the business functions. He’s fascinated by medicine but feels trapped because of the costs of switching over.

The frustrated executive in a family business, itching to get out and be creative, entrepreneurial, impactful, and generous. What will he do?

Many of us are leading what author and educator Parker Palmer calls a “divided life”—a life in which we’re separated from our whole, true self.

Divided lives are common, for many reasons. Many of us were so busy doing things in our formative years that we never took much time to stop and think about who we are and what we really want to do in the world. A costly mistake, but one that we can rectify.

We’re under subtle but powerful pressure from family, friends, and mentors, feeling the heavy weight of outside expectations on our shoulders. Our school systems give us siloed education in disparate fields, making it hard for us to do the necessary sensemaking and wayfinding for choosing a career path wisely.

And so we end up leading a divided life.

 

The Problem of a Divided Life

Palmer lists the signs that we may be living a divided life:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work…
  • We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values…
  • We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit.
  • We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked….
  • We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
  • We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.”

With a divided life, we sense incongruity between our inner world and our outer one. We feel inauthentic. We miss out on “the life-giving energies of true self.” Palmer notes from experience (including bouts with deep, debilitating depression) that when we violate our true self, it resists us and holds our life in check… “until we honor its truth.”

It’s painful and shameful, because it feels like living a lie, since we’re not honoring our nature.

There is another way.

 

The Alternative: Wholeness

Wholeness means staying faithful to ourselves. It means growing into what Palmer calls our “authentic selfhood,” regardless of whether it conforms to the expectations of others or pattern-maps to the conventional model of success.

Wholeness means choosing our own definition of success and blazing our own path in life. Not easy, surely, but bound to bring adventure and satisfaction, even for trying.

Wholeness means showing up in the world as we truly are, not as some hologram designed to please others.

“I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.”Chip Conley, author and entrepreneur, from our LIFE Entrepreneurs interview

 

Wholeness by Other Names

Palmer isn’t the only one to see the power of wholeness.

Brene Brown writes about a close cousin to it, about being “wholehearted”:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

For Brown, a key aspect of wholeheartedness is authenticity, which she defines as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”

It sounds much easier than it is. That’s why she talks about the “audacity of authenticity.”

In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I noted the importance of “authentic integrity”: integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature. It means living in alignment with our core identity, including our purpose, values, strengths, and aspirations.

“I just felt like I’ve lived a life that was true to itself…. Anybody who’s ever hung out in an ‘old man bar’—you know what I’m talking about—sees what happens when you don’t let that part of yourself do its thing.”Mary Cutrufello, musician and songwriter, in our LIFE Entrepreneurs interview

Author and former CEO Bill George calls it “true north”: the internal compass that guides us successfully through life.

 

A Shadow Side

Being whole isn’t the same as being perfect. Sometimes we’re broken—or feel broken. We have flaws and hang-ups that can get us into trouble.

Being whole means embracing our whole selves, even the parts we don’t like. We’re all a work in progress.

“Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic.” -Bill George, best-selling author and former CEO

 

The Gifts of Imperfection

In a world awash in perfectionism, Brene Brown flips the script and talks about the “gifts of imperfection.” She notes that our imperfections are part of what makes us human, and they can bring us unexpected gifts, including courage, compassion, and connection:

  • Courage to be who we truly are even when we fear judgment or disappointment from others.
  • Compassion to see that everyone has their own struggles, leading us first to suffer with them in spirit and then to want to help them.
  • Connection when we recognize our shared humanity and see ourselves in the true stories of others, including their heartaches and foibles.

Notably, these three gifts are important components of wholeheartedness.

“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” -Brené Brown

Living in the modern world in many ways pulls us away from wholeness. In some ways, it’s easier to live a divided life, and to avoid the vulnerability and struggle that can accompany authenticity and imperfection.

But at what cost in the end? What life will our future self be glad we crafted?

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you honoring your nature, or holding back?
  • Have you been upholding your values?
  • Are you investing yourself in your work, or phoning it in?
  • Do you let yourself be fully seen, including your flaws?
  • Are you clear about your purpose, values, and aspirations for your life?
  • Do you feel whole?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Divided Lives and Whole Lives

  • “…there can be no greater suffering than living a lifelong lie…. in the end what will matter most is knowing that we stayed true to ourselves.” -Parker Palmer
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Bring your whole self to work. I don’t believe we have a professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It is all professional and it is all personal.” -Sheryl Sandberg
  • “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am. I can’t think of a more graced way to die than with the knowledge that I showed up here as my true self, the best I knew how, able to engage life freely and lovingly because I had become fierce with reality.” -Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

 

Recommended Books and Videos

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

 

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, divided life, wholeness, wholehearted, gifts of imperfection, true north

Why Is Happiness So Elusive?

(This article is part of a series on happiness. See the end of the article for more articles in the series.)

We want to be happy. To live well. And enjoy life.

We have our moments, and if we’re fortunate some long stretches of happiness.

But it’s harder than it sounds. There are struggles. Highs and lows. And not just because of the swirling vortex of challenges around us, from the pandemic to a depressing news cycle, with endless waves of shocks and worries.

No, it’s not just that. (As if that weren’t enough.) In our day-to-day experience and its accompanying thought streams, there are many other factors that get in the way.

Here are eight of the most important factors making happiness elusive.

 

1. The Ups and Downs of Positive Emotions

We’re not wired to be happy all the time. Life has its ups and downs.

Positive emotions are an important component of happiness. They include pleasant feelings or situational responses such as interest, serenity, amusement, hope, pride, love, joy, and awe. But we have negative emotions too: concern, disappoint, frustration, regret, anxiety, and more.

Nat Rutherford from the University of London notes that “Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won, but instead it’s a practice which we hone, imperfectly, in circumstances only partly of our making…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.”

As we can learn from the research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, the key is to give ourselves many experiences of contentment, wellbeing, and joy. And if we work at living well and honoring our nature, we’ll also naturally develop a sense that our life is good and meaningful—a sense of life satisfaction.

 

2. Hedonic Adaptation

Researchers point to “hedonic adaptation,” in which we become accustomed to changes in our circumstances. Then we settle into that new baseline as if nothing had happened. Our positive feelings diminish and settle back into neutral.

This leads to a “hedonic treadmill” in which, like a hamster, we run faster and faster but get nowhere in terms of happiness. We end up right where we started.

Why? Part of the problem is our rising aspirations. We may want a bigger house, for example, and then a much bigger house with a nicer view.

Another issue is social comparison. If our new friends have upgraded their smartphone (or car, or vacation destination), we see our own things in a diminished light.

 

3. Our Mistaken Beliefs about What Brings Happiness

As noted in my article on “The Most Common Myths about Happiness,” we have many mistaken beliefs about what will bring us happiness, and these get us into trouble. Our theories of happiness are often wrong.

My top ten list of the most common myths:

  1. Myth: We must pursue happiness.
  2. Myth: Happiness comes from changing our circumstances.
  3. Myth: When we’re successful, we’ll be happy.
  4. Myth: Having certain things will make us happy.
  5. Myth: Money will bring us happiness.
  6. Myth: Happiness is a destination.
  7. Myth: We always revert to our “happiness set point.”
  8. Myth: We can’t be happy when we’re experiencing negative events.
  9. Myth: Happiness is a solo endeavor.
  10. Myth: Happiness declines with age.

There’s nuance when it comes to happiness. These simplistic notions fail to deliver the happiness.

With a flawed road map, we end up far from our intended destination. And lost. Better instead to be aware of the many research-based happiness practices.

 

4. Negativity Bias

Researchers have discovered that negative things like troublesome thoughts, sour feelings, or unpleasant social interactions often have a greater effect on our mental state than positive things (or neutral ones). This “negativity bias” darkens the skies of our lived experience.

What’s more, negative feelings narrow our thoughts—and thus the range of actions we’re likely to take.

“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.”Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

 

5. Fear

As noted in my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear,” fear is universal. We all feel it. It’s hardwired into our neurobiology.

Fear comes with an array of chemical reactions in our body, including a flood of stress hormones and impairment of our cerebral cortex. When feeling fear, we’re far from a mental state conducive to positive emotions and happiness.

In today’s world, sophisticated operators (from demagogues to technology platforms) have figured out how to hijack our attention. They’ve monetized and weaponized fear. They constantly broadcast alerts or promote shrewd narratives designed to elicit our fear response by threatening our identity or tribe. The result is a far cry from happiness.

 

6. Putting Stock in the Wrong Things

Much of the modern world is pushing the message that the accumulation, consumption, and display of material things will make us happy. We conflate wealth with success. And we assume that money and success will bring us happiness.

Wrong. The research says otherwise. (See “The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness” and “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

Happiness will continue to elude us if we insist on putting stock in the wrong things.

 

7. The Problem with Pursuing Happiness

It’s baked into our cultural programming that we must pursue happiness. As logical as it sounds, it turns out to be counterproductive.

Some things become more elusive the more we pursue them. It turns out that some things play hard to get.

As the old saying goes, happiness is like a butterfly. If we pursue it, it remains beyond our grasp. But it may alight upon us if we sit quietly and forget out it.

The reality is that happiness is more likely to arrive when we focus on other things, such as purpose, deep connection with others, serving others, and contributing to something larger than ourselves—and something we value.

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill, 19th century English philosopher

 

8. The Expectations Trap

Scholars warn about the “expectations trap”: when there’s a gap between our current life satisfaction and our expected life satisfaction, It causes us to feel disappointment or view our overall life satisfaction unfavorably, even though our life conditions may be positive. The problem is that we can set our standards too high, such that they’re unrealistic and destined to disappoint.

According to clinical psychologist Jennifer Barbera, we may set ourselves up for failure when we focus on the pursuit of happiness. Since feelings of happiness are likely to wax and wane, as she says, we’re headed for trouble when the highs fade. We’ve fallen into the expectations trap.

“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”Yuval Noah Harari, author and historian

 

What to Do about It

As we’ve seen above, happiness can be elusive. For many reasons.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless. In fact, researchers have identified a number of happiness-inducing activities (summarized in the article, “What Leads to Happiness”). Here are some of the main ones:

  1. Regular exercise and physical activity
  2. Acts of kindness, caring, service, and generosity
  3. Purpose and meaning
  4. Relationships with others
  5. Goals and aspirations
  6. Authentic expression of self
  7. Anticipation
  8. Gratitude
  9. Experiences
  10. Learning and developing
  11. Meditation and mindfulness
  12. “Person-activity fit”
  13. Seeing the positive and reframing the negative
  14. Journaling
  15. Resilience
  16. Savoring
  17. Self-care
  18. Strengths (knowing and doing the things that we’re good at)
  19. Intentional and effective use of time
  20. Variety

It turns out that there’s no magic recipe for happiness. We’re all different, with varying values, personalities, and contexts.

What if we need a tailored recipe for our own unique tastes, drawing on common ingredients but in different proportions?

Why not get busy crafting our life and work so that we lead a good life as we define it? And capture in the process some of that elusive happiness and joy.

“Many of us persist in searching for ‘the one’ true secret path to happiness (or to career success or to spiritual fulfillment and so on), like the one diet that will work when all others have failed. In truth, there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier…. If there’s any ‘secret’ to becoming happier, the secret is in establishing which happiness strategies suit you best.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, life satisfaction, wellbeing, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology, positive emotions, happiness myths

The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness

Many people believe in the logic: When I’m successful, I’ll be happy.

Sounds reasonable. After all, professional success will bring a sense of accomplishment and status. Nice. It’s associated with higher income and more wealth. So it’s likely to make us happy.

The logic is sound. But wrong. Not only wrong, but backwards.

According to an extensive review by researchers over many years, it works the other way around: When I’m happy, I’m more likely to be successful.

Researchers Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky did a massive investigation of the potential relationship between career success and happiness, published in a 2005 paper. In a follow-up paper published in 2018, they revisited the research with updated evidence from different kinds of studies around the world, including cross-sectional studies, longitudinal studies, and experimental studies.

From this extensive research, they found that happier people have a wide array of benefits and advantages, including:

  • More investment and involvement in their work
  • More job satisfaction
  • More social support from their supervisors and colleagues
  • Greater optimism, creativity, originality, confidence, flexibility, and curiosity
  • More ambitious goal-setting
  • Increased perseverance at challenging tasks
  • Higher performance and productivity in an array of work settings
  • Greater sales
  • Better work evaluations from their supervisors
  • Higher incomes
  • Less burnout, absenteeism, and job turnover

It’s an astonishing array of benefits. Here are some of the main conclusions from their research:

“First, the cross-sectional literature supports a correlational link between happiness and various success-related outcomes. Happiness is positively associated with job autonomy, job satisfaction, job performance, prosocial behavior, social support, popularity, and income….

Second… The longitudinal research suggests that people who are happy at an initial time point are more likely to find employment, be satisfied with their jobs, acquire higher status, perform well, be productive, receive social support, be evaluated positively, engage in fewer withdrawal behaviors, and obtain higher income at a subsequent time point….

Finally… The experimental research demonstrates that when people are randomly

assigned to experience positive emotions, they negotiate more collaboratively, set higher goals for themselves, persist at difficult tasks longer, evaluate themselves and others more favorably, help others more, and demonstrate greater creativity and curiosity than people assigned to experience neutral or negative emotions.” -Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2018 paper

 

The Happiness Advantage

Author Shawn Achor has famously called this the “happiness advantage.” He writes:

“When we are happy—when our mindset and mood are positive—we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful.” -Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

It gets even better. Many researchers have noted that there’s an “upward spiral” at work here, with different factors providing positive reinforcement to other factors:

 “several pieces of evidence… suggest the presence of upward spirals—that is, where positive emotions trigger an adaptive outcome related to career success, which in turn triggers more positive emotions and further success.” -Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2018 paper

Since we’re talking about complex phenomena like people, their emotions, and their performance in social settings, we must be mindful of nuances. A 1999 study noted that there’s likely a “bidirectional relationship” between happiness and job performance, with happiness helping to drive high performance, and high performance likely to boost happiness. It may be more complicated than that. There may be what Lyubomirsky et al. call a “chain of reciprocal relationships,” where sets of variables affect other factors over time iteratively.

 

Biology at Work

Many have noted that this makes sense from a biological perspective. For example, Achor notes that “positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative.”

When we feel positive emotions, we’re flooded with the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which activate and stimulate the learning centers in our brain, helping us think more quickly and creatively, organize new information, and improve our analytical and problem-solving skills. Essentially, our brains get primed for us to become more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. Other people pick up on this, and we can work more effectively with them.

These findings are powerful, with profound implications for how we should live and work—and how we should think about approaching them. We can begin by engaging in happiness-promoting activities backed by research.

But let’s not get carried away and take this logic too far. This isn’t about simplistic positive thinking. Having a positive outlook is a related factor but not central to the drivers here. Just because happiness promotes career success doesn’t in any way imply that it’s the only factor in success. Surely, there are many. And it doesn’t imply that unhappy people can’t be successful.

It doesn’t mean that organizations should hire only outwardly happy people. Or that they should mandate happiness activities for all workers. This can turn Orwellian quickly.

The researchers cited above note that there’s an area where the benefits of happiness and positive emotions appear mixed: when workers attempt to perform complex mental tasks. Some research has found that positive emotions can inhibit local reasoning and scramble attempts to distinguish between strong arguments and weak ones.

And there may be an advantage to negative emotions in some settings and on some tasks, such as ones that require careful execution of steps when decision-making is structured. Sometimes the critical lens of skepticism and doubt is wildly valuable.

 

Focusing Too Much on Success

We can also look at this from another angle: there are risks that come with the pursuit of success.

As I noted in my article, “Are You Trapped by Success?”, there are many potential traps associated with chasing success, including:

 

Conclusion

Many of us invest a great deal of our identity and self-worth in our work. Including a sense of whether we feel successful. Including whether we believe we’re perceived as successful in the eyes of others and relative to our peers. Relative to the expectations we have for ourselves—and the expectations of family and friends.

We seek happiness, and we believe that becoming successful will make us happy.

We must unlearn this. We must rewind and rewrite the script, recognizing that we’ve had it backwards all this time. Recognizing that it hasn’t been serving us.

Now that we know that when we’re happy, we’re more likely to be successful, we can get back to the basics of living a good life, knowing and trusting that good things are likely to flow from that naturally.

If we live well, happiness and success are likely to follow.

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

Postscript: Quotations on Happiness and Success

  • “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.” -Albert Schweitzer
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives  (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, success, fulfillment, life satisfaction, wellbeing, positive emotion, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology, happiness advantage