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 tends to come 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 2018 paper, they revisited the research with updated evidence from different kinds of studies around the world, including cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies.

 

The Benefits of Happiness

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. There are 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, there are 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 and her colleagues call a “chain of reciprocal relationships.” Sets of variables affect other factors over time iteratively.

 

Biology at Work

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. These 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, we prime our brains to become more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. Other people see 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 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 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.

So 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

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Happiness Is the Wrong Goal

Let’s face it. We’re obsessed with happiness:

Am I happy?

I just want to be happy.

I want my kids to be happy.

Why doesn’t my job make me happy?

Why doesn’t my relationship make me happy?

We tend to view happiness as the point of life.

Sounds reasonable. But it turns out to be counterproductive.

Happiness is the wrong goal.

To understand why and how, let’s back up and examine what we’re talking about.

There are many ways to think about happiness. We often think of it as feeling contentment or pleasure. But there’s more to it.

An excellent definition comes from happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky (also a psychology professor):

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here we see that happiness can include two important elements:

  • the current experience of positive emotions like pleasure and joy
  • an overall sense of life satisfaction, with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose

In the U.S., we have a long tradition of reverence for happiness. Even the Declaration of Independence noted our unalienable right not only to life and liberty but also to “the pursuit of happiness.”

This isn’t only an American phenomenon. The World Happiness Report has been published for a decade now. The United Kingdom began measuring national wellbeing ten years ago, following the Kingdom of Bhutan in Asia, which had already been measuring not only gross domestic product but also “gross national happiness.”

 

The Larger Context of Happiness

One of the challenges with achieving happiness is that there’s a lot to it. It comes with many associated feelings and related notions, including: circumstances (positive or negative), contentment, flourishing, fulfillment, joy, life satisfaction, meaning, mood, quality of life, self-actualization, self-evaluation, success, and wellbeing. Phew!

To understand happiness, we also need to think about unpleasant feelings like sadness, disappointment, anxiety, depression, neuroticism, rumination, and more. That brings up the related issues of adversity, adaptation, and resilience. Clearly, happiness isn’t just about beaches, butterflies, and rainbows.

What’s more, how we think about happiness has changed dramatically over time. Nowadays, we seem to have lost important ideas from ancient times. Enter “eudaimonia.”

 

Eudaimonia—A Deeper Form of Happiness

Many ancient Greek philosophers focused on what they called “eudaimonia.” It’s commonly translated as “happiness” (and sometimes as “wellbeing” or “human flourishing”), but the roots of the word literally mean the condition of “good spirit.”

What they meant by eudaimonia goes well beyond our modern notion of happiness. They meant happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the term for the highest human good. It included fulfillment of human nature in an excellent way. He wrote that eudaimonia entails “doing and living well.” In other words, living a good life.

Here we encounter an important difference: eudaimonia is about habits and actions, whereas the way we think about happiness today is about feelings and mental states. This is actually a long-running debate between the hedonistic tradition (seeking pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant ones) and the eudaimonic tradition (living life in a full and deeply satisfying way, in accordance with virtue and excellence).

To the ancients in the eudaimonic tradition, a good life is the quest of a lifetime. It’s something you work toward every day, through your actions, mindsets, and relationships. Today, must of that seems lost.

 

Stoicism and Happiness

In Stoic philosophy, achieving eudaimonia requires the practice of virtue (rightful action in the world).

The idea is that we can only flourish by living an ethical life, practicing certain virtues (like courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation), and living in accordance with nature. Through right thinking and virtuous action, we can become emotionally resilient to negative events and misfortune.

We can develop self-control and mental strength to overcome harmful emotions that result from errors of judgment. This can help us be free from unproductive emotions like anger and envy.

 

Buddhism and Happiness

Buddhism focuses on liberation from suffering, including overcoming craving and helping us accept life’s irrefutable truths. It encourages compassion, loving kindness, and a desire for the welfare of all beings.

Buddhist practice includes cultivation of attention and fostering a state of awareness, nonstriving, and detachment (or nonattachment).

A higher aspiration is nirvana, a state of everlasting peace through the release of worldly suffering.

Clearly, there are many paths and practices, old and new, related to happiness.

 

Happiness in Difficult Circumstances

While some view happiness as a pleasant state free from suffering, pain, or negative circumstances, a closer look reveals that happiness can sometimes depend on such things.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche urged us to recognize the value of difficulties in life, including suffering and unhappiness, since things of great worth can sometimes only be earned through difficulty and struggle.

A 2012 study by Jonathan Adler and Hal Hershfield found that mixed emotional experience (that is, concurrent positive and negative emotional experience, like happiness and sadness) is associated with and precedes improvements in psychological wellbeing.

The issue here is whether to express or suppress negative emotions (like sadness or grief) when things are difficult. One model (called a “co-activation model”) recommends “taking the good with the bad”: “when experiencing the loss of a loved one, allowing positive memories to be experienced alongside sadness could potentially lead to a healthier bereavement process.”

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” -Kahlil Gibran

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the “adversity hypothesis,” which holds that people need adversity and setbacks to reach the heights of personal development, strength, and fulfillment.

Most people have heard about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but not as many know about “post-traumatic growth”: positive psychological change after struggling with stressful and challenging circumstances. This can occur when we cope well with adversity and turn it into something valuable (such as life lessons, wisdom, or serenity).

Adversity can strengthen relationships by invoking vulnerability and opening our hearts to each other. And it can lead to feelings of love, connection, and gratitude for the help and caring provided. Haidt notes that it can also reorder our priorities (away from the future and toward the present, and away from ourselves and toward others).

It turns out that happiness isn’t about having positive experiences and circumstances and avoiding negative ones (though it’s hard to fault people for striving for that).

Are we really going to cede our happiness to the fickle Fates and precarious fortune, according to whether things happen to be going well in our life?

Some of the things that bring us deeper happiness, wellbeing, and an overall sense of life satisfaction include adversity, pain, and suffering, as long as they include avenues of deeper meaning or connection.

 

The Wrong Goal, The Right Goal

Happiness is the wrong goal. And so is success. And wealth. Beauty. Fame. Power. Prestige. Comfort. Pleasure.

These aren’t bad. They’re just destined to disappoint. They won’t make us happy.

A better goal, I think, is to live a good life. A life of vitality, connection, and contribution, as Jonathan Fields advises in his book, How to Live a Good Life.

A life of purpose, close relationships, and serving others. How about a life in which we learn, grow, and develop integrity, wisdom, and resilience?

A life of joy and savoring. How about a life of caring and action in the world to make things better, with others?

What does a good life mean for you?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Happiness

  • “You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.” -Ernie Banks
  • “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.” -William Feather
  • “Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of his self.” -Erich Fromm
  • “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” -Helen Keller
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” -John Milton (from Paradise Lost)
  • “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” -James Oppenheim
  • “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” -Dennis Waitley

 

Definitions of Key Terms

  • Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Subjective wellbeing: how we experience and evaluate the quality of our lives, including frequent positive affect (the extent to which we experience positive moods), infrequent negative affect, and cognitive evaluations such as life satisfaction. Sometimes distinctions are made between different types (e.g., mental, physical, economic, and emotional wellbeing).
  • Life satisfaction: how we feel about our lives overall and our future. It’s a measure of wellbeing assessed in terms of mood, satisfaction (with relationships and achieved goals), and our perceived ability to cope with the challenges of daily life. Here, researchers note the difference between “affective happiness” (felt in our momentary emotions) and “evaluative happiness” (our sense of our entire life).

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Burnout and the Great Resignation

Burnout has been a big problem for millions of people for a long time now. And it’s getting worse.

Burnout is also affecting more young people. And the pandemic, with all the extra stressors and pressures it’s brought to so many, is aggravating the burnout problem. These are major ingredients of the “great resignation.”

What is burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

When we’re burned out, we feel run-down and exhausted or empty. It’s related to overwork (when we work beyond our capacity) and workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we struggle to switch it off.

 

The Covid Context

The pandemic has added fuel to this fire. Here’s some recent data:

  • 52% of survey respondents reported experiencing burnout in 2021, up from 43% in Indeed’s pre-Covid survey, and 67% say burnout has worsened during the pandemic.
  • According to a 2021 Deloitte survey, 77% of respondents say that’ve experienced burnout at their current job, with more than half noting more than one occurrence.
  • 91% say the quality of their work has been negatively impacted by having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration.
  • 83% say job burnout can negatively affect their personal relationships.
  • Nearly 70% of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.

Also, the average share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder, has increased dramatically, from 11% in January-June 2019 (before the pandemic) to 41% in January 2021 (during the pandemic), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

Effects of Burnout

We know that job burnout can have major negative effects on our health and lives, including:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Weakened immune system

(Source: Mayo Clinic.)

 

Symptoms of Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are many symptoms of job burnout, including:

  • Becoming critical or cynical at work
  • Feeling low motivation to go to work and start working
  • Becoming impatient or irritable with others
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Feeling disillusioned about the work
  • Lacking satisfaction from achievements
  • Using food, alcohol, or other substances to self-medicate or tamp down feelings
  • Experiencing health issues, including poor sleep, headaches, stomach problems, and more

 

Causes of Burnout

According to researchers, there are many causes of job burnout, including:

  • A sense of a lack of control, including an inability to influence relevant decisions
  • Unclear or unrealistic job expectations, including job scope creep
  • Dysfunctional work dynamics, such as micromanagers or office bullies
  • Lack of social support, including isolation at work or home
  • Work demands that impede on important family or social commitments outside of work
  • Lack of communication, feedback, and support at work
  • Frequent time pressures, raising stress levels
  • Limited upward mobility
  • The removal of boundaries between work and home

Note that burnout doesn’t come automatically from long hours. Whether it sets in can depend on many factors, including context, personality, mindset, and worker actions.

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Great Resignation

So where does all this leave us, amidst a pandemic with a burnout epidemic? According to a Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers around the world, 41% of workers were considering quitting or changing professions this year. In the U.S., more than four million people quit their jobs in April 2021. That’s the biggest increase on record, according to the Department of Labor.

Nearly half of millennials have left a job due to burnout, compared to 42% for all respondents, according to Deloitte.

The reasons for leaving a job are often multifaceted. Common reasons include not only burnout but also:

  • Substandard pay
  • Lack of meaning at work
  • Work that doesn’t fit with, or even violates, our values
  • Lack of dignity or respect at work
  • Feeling like a cog in a large machine
  • Lack of human connection
  • Lack of good management and proper recognition
  • Poor working conditions

The pandemic has caused a shift in priorities in life for many. In some cases, it’s provided motivation to pursue a dream job or more meaningful work. Or it’s stoked resentment about being treated poorly, or not getting adequate support. The “great resignation” is a tectonic shift that should wake us all up to the need to think and act anew about work.

 

What to Do About It

We’re all responsible for our own condition. Including the need to act when a situation is bad or toxic. Though the context is tough for many, there’s still much we can do not only to reduce or eliminate burnout. And to improve our working and living conditions:

  • Boundaries. Set boundaries and get better at saying “no.” If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.
  • Breaks. Take regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) to improve your physical and emotional state, gaining a fresh perspective in the process.
  • Exercise. Move your body more to build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in your body that affect your mood, and it helps you sleep well.
  • Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. That can have powerful effects on your quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health.
  • Healthy Support Systems. Take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability. Build healthy support systems that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives)
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy (e.g., gardening, hiking, photography) and build it into your daily or weekly routine.
  • Job Crafting. Craft your work intentionally. Take actions to shape or redesign what you do at work, especially changing your mindset toward your work to make it more satisfying and meaningful, but also changing tasks and relationships when possible.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health, as well as performance.
  • Nature. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. Given all our screen time, we need to be sure we’re getting outside enough with walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized.
  • Reframing. Reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Find places or practices of peace (e.g., nature, prayer), allowing you to get beyond your ego and connect with something larger than yourself.
  • Savoring. Fully feel and enjoy positive experiences, magnifying and extending them in the process.
  • Self-Reflection. Engage in self-reflection and seek to identify the root causes of your burnout. Look especially for what may drive a sense of resentment (such as work causing too much missed family time during the precious formative years of children).
  • Sleep. Sleep turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors: addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships. Don’t forget about naps.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.)
  • Yoga. Yoga can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind.

In summary, lead yourself and intentionally craft your life and work, taking full responsibility for your life and refusing to adopt a victim mindset.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you at risk of burning out?
  • What are the root causes?
  • What will you do about it?
  • Which of the above practices work best for you?

 

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Postscript: Quotations about Burnout and Renewal

  • “The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.” -Andrew Bernstein
  • Burnout is “civilization’s disease…. It is not only an individual disorder that affects some who are ill-suited to the system, or too committed, or who don’t know how to put limits to their professional lives. It is also a disorder that, like a mirror, reflects some excessive values of our society.” -Pascal Cabot, Belgian philosopher
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton
  • “In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity.” -Arianna Huffington
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
  • “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Burnout sets in when two conditions prevail: Certainties start to characterize the workday, and demands of the job make workers lose a sense of control.” -Ellen Langer
  • “A rested Andrew can do more in four hours than a tired Andrew can do in eight. It’s not only diminishing returns; [not being rested] is like a scorpion’s tail—it can undo things. That’s true of everyone’s productivity and particularly in an intellectual role like that of a CEO. A lot of boards don’t get that. People need to be fresh.” -Andrew Mackenzie, CEO, BHP
  • “Burnout is about resentment. [Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful.” -Marissa Mayer, tech executive
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz
  • “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” -Henry David Thoreau

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Beware the Disease of More

More isn’t always better.

Let that sink in.

More ≠ better.

Yet our brains fool us into thinking that it is. It’s an unconscious assumption, deep in our brains, that’s nearly impossible to shake.

It’s the idea that if we get more of the things we think we want, we’ll be happier.

But it’s a lie.

More what? More of pretty much everything: Money. Status. Skills. Achievements. Victories. Conquests. Beauty. Followers. Honors. Devices. Shoes. Goals. Projects. More whatever. You name it. The disease or more.

We’re seduced by the possibility of the next thing. Seduced by the chase.

Here’s the thing: We accumulate them as we go, and then what?

We want more.

It’s like a black hole pulling ever-more things into its vortex. The ambition is never-ending. It can’t be sated—at least not the way we’re trying to sate it.

Yes, we get a temporary hit when we get something we want. The dopamine rush is real. But it’s fleeting. It’s never enough.

 

What’s Really Happening?

What’s going on here? How is it possible to want something, get it, and then not be happy?

One key driver is “hedonic adaptation”: we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.

What causes hedonic adaptation? According to researchers, it’s driven by a couple of things:

  • Social comparison (if our neighbors get a nicer car, we feel inferior and feel a pang of envy and desire)
  • Rising aspirations (if we get a big house, it’s not long before we want a bigger house)*

These dynamics lead to a “hedonic treadmill” in which, like a hamster, we run faster and faster to acquire more things but get nowhere in terms of increasing our happiness. It’s an absurd situation when viewed from a distance.

Wait, there’s more. What often happens is a clever redirect: our desire for more is a distraction, a way of avoiding emotional emptiness or relational distance or pain. Why sit and feel bad about these core foundations of true happiness when we can busy ourselves with yet another chase?

Also, we tend to focus on what’s missing, instead of appreciating what we have. Our evolutionary biology has caused us to focus much more on the negative than the positive. It’s called “negativity bias.”

 

Our Consumer Culture

Our consumer culture, which is excessively material and comparative, also drives our itch for more. It’s about acquiring and consuming things. It may generate corporate and advertising profits, but it doesn’t fill us up.

In this potent environment, we’re inundated with countless messages from others (e.g., family, friends, influencers, social media, ads) about what will make us happy.

The hard truth: there’s a big difference between what we think will make us happy and what actually makes us happy.

We tend to believe that we must pursue and find happiness, as if it’s “out there.” The logic is that happiness lies in changing our circumstances: “I’ll be happy when…” (…when I’m successful, when I get that promotion, etc.).

 

The Problem

The problem with this way of thinking and living–with the disease of more–is that it doesn’t work.

Getting more doesn’t fix the underlying problems. The pursuit of more, more, more—while it keeps us occupied and driven, like a rat sniffing cheese—will leave us less happy and fulfilled.

It can make us transactional, mercenary, and cynical. Our hearts harden. We feel accumulation anxiety, and we fill our days with need and busyness instead of love and grace.

“No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.”Tony Schwartz, from The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working 

That’s not to say that our pursuit of more is always bad. Sometimes we do need more. Sometimes getting more is good for us.

Far too many people on this planet and in this country live in poverty, or with economic uncertainty. They live in food deserts, or actual deserts. They lack access to clean water or basic health care, or stable employment or income-generating opportunities. Or they face violence or repression. In the face of such hardships, more security is a godsend.

The problem comes when people are financially secure and comfortable, but caught in a hollow cycle of need, greed, and speed. Caught in the disease of more.

 

Related Traps

This “disease of more” doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It operates alongside a number of related traps, including:

  • Climbing mode: focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement, that we never take time for discovering who we are and what brings us joy and fulfillment
  • Ego: being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves
  • Emptiness: feeling empty about what we’re doing
  • Outer-driven: being driven by the expectations of others
  • Prestige: hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • The comparison game: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  • False metrics of success: measuring success in cold and calculating ways, such as income, net worth, position, or number of followers

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

Determinants of Happiness

Happiness is a slippery fish. It’s hard to pin down, but researchers believe there are a few major determinants of happiness.

First, we have a genetic set point of happiness. Researchers estimate that it comprises about 50% of our overall happiness.

Second, they estimate that about 40% of our happiness comes from intentional activity and our mindset.

Finally, they estimate that only about 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances.

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.”Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher, author, and professor

 

What to Do

The mental tricks are deceptive, and the cultural conditioning powerful. What to do about it?

Here are several recommended practices based on research and experience:

First, stop the madness. Resolve to abandon the futile and endless pursuit of more, more, more. We can want happiness (who doesn’t?), but our obsessive chasing of it can backfire because it can lead to an epic ego trip—a narcissistic pursuit that leaves us wanting. Instead, connect with and contribute to others. Get over yourself.

Second, change the default viewpoint from comparison to contribution. Stop falling into the comparison trap and start asking how you can add value to those around you or to causes you care about.

Third, clarify your purpose and values—and live by them as best you can. Not perfectly, as that lies beyond our reach, but in a disciplined pursuit. This will help ensure that you don’t get waylaid, reaching the top of an ambition ladder only to find that it leaves you hollow or has taken you nowhere good, or at too great a cost (and quickly scouting for a new ladder).

Fourth, use your sword and shield. Once you know your purpose and values, use your metaphoric sword (your courage and will) to fight for them. And use your shield to defend against the bombardment of other people’s priorities and societal notions of success that don’t resonate with you besides the tingling of your “lizard brain.”

Fifth, live by your own lights and develop genuine self-worth, separate from your title, role, and possessions. Are you at risk of falling apart if you lose your current role?

Sixth, start simplifying your life by sloughing off the extraneous things that take up time, money, or space (e.g., clothes you never wear, the trinkets in your closet or garage that go untouched for years). Flip the equation from “more is better” to “less is more,” because less is light and free. “Less” has margin. “Less” frees you up to focus on what matters. See the “minimalism and “essentialism movements for great insights about how this works and how to start.

Finally, bring back a sense of gratitude for all you have, instead of resenting all the things you don’t have, or all you want or need. Having a gratitude practice can be powerful and effective in increasing our sense of wellbeing.

Note: You can’t do any of this without the presence of mind to lead yourself—to craft your life and work intentionally.

“Accomplishment. Money. Fame. Respect. Piles and piles of them will never make a person feel content.

If you believe there is ever some point where you will feel like you’ve ‘made it,’ when you’ll finally be good, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Or worse, a sort of Sisyphean torture where just as that feeling appears to be within reach, the goal is moved just a little bit farther up the mountain and out of reach.

You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside. It comes from stepping off the train. From seeing what you already have, what you’ve always had.

If a person can do that, they are richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sovereign.”Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key

 

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have the “disease of more” in some parts of your life? How so?
  • Which of the above practices resonate with you?
  • What will you do, starting now?

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

* On the flipside, sometimes there are benefits of hedonic adaptation, such as when our circumstances change for the worse, since we can also adapt to a new baseline after illness or tragedy.

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of this ruthless pandemic has been what it has reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished. We see the problem of going it alone.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout and overwork. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”The Beatles

 

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships.

In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Isolation and Going It Alone

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

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Postscript: Quotes on the Importance of Relationships and Not Going It Alone

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” –Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” –Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” –Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” –Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” –Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” –Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!