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!

Are You Trapped by Success?

success trap--man on a hamster wheel

Are you trapped by success? It’s an odd question. How can success be a trap? Is that even possible?

Turns out it can be a big trap. Below are 15 quick ways.

 

1. Addicted to Success

In a culture that worships success, we can become obsessed by it. It can consume most of our waking hours, and most of our waking thoughts. It can become a compulsive drive. We can build our lives around the pursuit of success. But what is success, actually? Have we taken the time to define what it means for us, in our current chapter of life, based on our own values?

 

2. Success Can Lead to Overwork

The pursuit of success can become all-consuming. It can cause us to be busy all the time, with a perpetual deficit of downtime. We never feel fully rested and renewed. Or we start losing our perspective and our resilience. We get run down and, ironically, start to lose our motivation and productivity.

 

3. The More We Aim for It, The More Elusive It Becomes

Some things in life aren’t exactly logical and linear. It’s not a matter of inputs in leading to inputs out. Some things don’t respond to sheer willpower or muscle. Some things in life are more nuanced.

We can’t force a baby kitten to feel comfortable with us. We can’t force someone to love us, no matter how hard we try. In fact, it may push them away. If we go bounding into the woods seeking wild game, they may never appear unless we sit quietly for a while and let them come to us in their own time. We can’t force happiness, at least the real kind. There’s a difference between a real smile that comes when we see an old friend after a long time apart and a forced smile that everyone can tell is fake.

Success will likely elude us if we’re too focused on it. Rather, it’s something that ensues when we get our life in order, when we’re clear about who we are and act accordingly—letting go of the trappings of false influences. Of course, success usually requires focus and hard work. But it’s best when we get lost in our work because we love the process itself and how it makes us feel while we’re doing it, not because we’re set on some arbitrarily created result with factors well beyond our control.

 

4. Locked into the Wrong Thing

What if the one thing that we excelled at isn’t right for us? What if we’re destined for something more, or something different? When did we make that decision about our career path, and on what basis and with what practical experience about what it actually entailed? Too often, it’s when we’re too young to make sound decisions, and we panic and play the short game or become overwhelmed by all the options.

 

5. Stuck in One Phase of Life

Perhaps we’re changing, with new interests emerging, but how could we possibly abandon the things that took us to the top? So we stick it out. We don’t grow and evolve into new challenges and opportunities better suited to our current circumstances. We flounder.

 

6. Never Feeling Successful Enough

There’s this illusion that once we become successful, then we’ll feel happy. But it’s often not the case. There are many “successful” people who are unsatisfied or even miserable. Many reach one goal, enjoy it for a while (literally a few days), only to then start focusing on the next goal, and the next one, ad infinitum. The happiness never arrives, because there are always new goals out there and higher levels of success, achievement, recognition, or wealth. Researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals. We rapidly adapt to the new circumstances and simply increase our aspirations. We get tripped up by social comparison among a new class of people, perpetually raising the expectations.

 

7. Resistance to Being Imperfect

Success comes with lots of perks, from wealth and power to comfort and prestige. But it can also make us feel like we need to be perfect. Otherwise, how can we be worthy of success? We fear making mistakes or being wrong in front of others, lest they start to question our worthiness. So we harbor a secret terror of being discovered as a fraud or of letting our imperfect humanity come through. We wear a mask of projected perfection and total confidence, secretly hoping that people can’t see through it. It’s exhausting. Nobody’s perfect. We can’t always be on, and right, and put-together. In this charade, we miss out on what Brene Brown calls “the gifts of imperfection,” including authenticity, self-compassion, connection, intimacy, and more.

 

8. The Burden of Success

Yes, success has its privileges. But it can also feel like we’re walking around with a hundred pounds of bricks on our backs. We carry the pressures, the expectations, the demands, the effort, the work. Life can start to feel like a burden we must bear.

 

9. The Illusion of Circumstances

As we chase success, it can feed into a trick our minds play on us, the illusion that the quality of our circumstances determines the quality of our lives. It’s such a pervasive belief that we can go through our whole lives without ever pausing to question it. The logic goes like this: When we’re successful and things are going well, we feel good and we’re happy. When we’re unsuccessful or in pain, uncomfortable, or facing a challenge (ourselves, or for our loved ones), we feel bad and unhappy.

The truth is that we can feel good even when our circumstances are bad. We can return to our values and sense of purpose. Or we can revisit our personal history and what makes us who we are. We can remain grateful for all that we have and have had. And we can stand still in awe of the gifts of life even when things are tough. We can be unflappable in the storms that are a natural part of life. We don’t have to let our thoughts spiral down with our circumstances.

 

10. The Myth that Success Is the Point of Life

The belief that success is the point of life is another mental trick that we can go through life without questioning. The point is to climb the ladder of success, right? To win the game, right? To be the best, or to achieve success, right? Not so fast.

Aren’t there more important things than achieving success and winning? What about love and our precious relationships? And what about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? And what about our faith, or spiritual practice, or connection with something deeper and more significant than points on a scoreboard or zeros in our bank account? Yes, we can do great things on a quest for success, but is that really the point of it all?

 

11. Success Can Take Us Away from Ourselves

As we get caught up in the image, in the prestige, in the chase, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value. We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our integrity on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. Or we can become success robots, following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

 

12. Success Can Take Us Away from Others

As we drift away from ourselves, we can also drift away from others. From our spouse or partner, because we’re so busy and have such important things we need to do. Or from our own children in their precious formative years or their struggling adult years, because we’re so caught up in our own stuff. From our extended family, from the friends we cherish, from our neighbors and community. We’re busy like bees, so we let our relationships suffer or die.

 

13. The Comparison Game

When we’re in chasing-success mode, it becomes a numbers game: How do we stack up against others in terms of salary, promotions, title, awards, fame? We start judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics, falling into what Father Robert Spitzer called the “comparative ethic,” instead of the “contributive ethic.”

 

14. The False Metrics of Success

When we take a mercenary view of success, we start measuring it in cold and calculating ways: cash, net worth, position, power, number of followers or direct reports. These may send our ego to the moon, but do they keep us warm at night and light us up? Will they hold up and stand the test of time as we look back on our lives?

 

15. Narrow Views of Success

Somewhere along the way we can start to view success in overly narrow terms, thinking about it in terms of professional, financial, and relative social terms—wealth, prestige, celebrity. The problem with this thinking is that, as Clayton Christensen has noted, it causes us to over-invest in our career while under-investing in our health, family, friends, community, spirituality (or mindfulness), and fun.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you trapped by success—or caught up too much in the chase?
  • Which of the traps above resonated most with you?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?

 

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.

 

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!