Does Success Create Happiness?

Somewhere along the line our society swallowed the idea that success creates happiness, that if we do everything “right”- get the job, the house, the paycheck, the partner, the prestige- then we will be happy; that the result is the cause, and if we can only get “there” it will all come together.

Unfortunately, this is not true.

Social psychologist and Harvard professor, Daniel Gilbert, researched the connection between success and happiness in his affective forecasting study. In his landmark research Gilbert followed professors up for tenure to measure their happiness before and after finding out if they had received the job security they desired.  He found that regardless of the circumstances- whether a professor achieved tenure status or not- they went back to the level of happiness they were at prior to this outcome, concluding that  professional accomplishment does not impact long-term happiness. This finding flies directly in the face of what we are led to believe…that when I get “there” I’ll be happy.

Through Gilbert’s research, as well as the research of many others, we’ve learned that there is no correlation between success and happiness. Success can and does lead to temporary high; but regardless of the professional accomplishment, people go back to the base level of happiness that they were at prior to their accomplishment- despite the scale of their accomplishment. Science proved achievement in and of itself is not the way to happiness.

Consequently, what we have learned from psychologists like Dan Gilbert, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener and other pioneering researchers is that unquestionably happiness amplifies the likelihood of accomplishment… Scientifically, we know that positive emotions lead to higher levels of creativity, generosity, enhanced resilience, improved physical health, as well as more professional success.  Yup, you got it… happiness increases your likelihood of achieving your professional goals.

In the aftermath of my illness, I made a vow to only do things that deeply satisfied me.  I entertained my curiosities through ongoing explorations that seemed to lead me on a precarious path over and over again. I remember the summer of 2001, when I should’ve just graduated from college, living in Lake Tahoe working in the food service industry thinking to myself how out of step I was with some of my closet friends.  They were onto their first big jobs and I was making tacos at Coyotes Café.  In my heart, I knew that I had no choice but to follow the voice of my soul leading me forward, even if it did separate me substantially from living a life congruent with standard expectations. As a high achieving student, taking time off in the middle of my college career to heal, work, travel, and let’s face it- ski, my trajectory seemed way off, especially in relation to my peers committed to the expected course. But was it?

After I moved to San Francisco to complete my B.A., I chose to study playwriting, not to continue with the pre-law track that I thought I wanted years earlier.  Again, I decided on behalf of what made me happy even at the risk of jeopardizing my potential future, the seemingly guaranteed path to make great money, achieve “success,” and approval.

Ironically though, my commitment to remain true to my heart brought me more blessings than I ever expected. My precarious professional path landed me a posh job with a coveted Fortune 500 company, despite my B.A. in English.

Years prior to that, my desire to live in close proximity to my yoga studio (yoga- one of my biggest joys in life) prompted me to live in the Lower Haight of San Francisco, which turned out quite fortuitous since it was around the block from my amazing life partner Doug- someone I would have never met had I not put my entire life on the line in pursuit of what enabled my happiness. (Major bonus, for sure!)

And though my life is far from perfect (I certainly have many issues I am consistently working through) I achieved a natural rhythm in my life by taking risks, standing up for what I really want, honestly assessing what I need, as well as by consciously and rhythmically taking down time.

So if happiness is really the number one contributing factor to authentic success what does it mean to be happy?  And how do we determine if we are happy?

This is a difficult question to objectively ascertain, as happiness is not a binary either or predicament. It’s a continuum and it’s highly nuanced.

When I look back to my days of making tacos in Tahoe, I can clearly see that though I was happy then, I am happier now, and that the road from there to here included many ups and downs.  Instead of asking myself if I am happy, I’ve learned to ask am I happier. And, more importantly, how can I become even happier?

Committing to the life long journey of becoming happier is the number one contributor to overall success. Taking care of what enables and enhances my happiness, though at times may feel so indulgent it can prompt guilt, remains one of the most important priorities in my life. I know that to achieve optimal health and performance I cannot deny pleasure. Likewise, remaining consistent with behaviors that enable my happiness (like high intensity interval training) even when I’d rather not, must rank on the top priority list too.

Happiness and peak performance occur naturally when we consistently challenge our comfort zones and follow up with substantial time for recovery, when we balance stress with recuperation. When we push beyond our limits to discover or build something new; and, grant ourselves sincere replenishment- we set ourselves up for success.  Linear trajectories towards success may lend to accomplishment, but not happiness.  Rhythmic oscillations of intense work, even stressful experiences (let’s face it- pushing past comfort zones is often stressful) followed by gratifying, pleasurable, value driven, down time creates a natural balance in our bodies and our lives that contributes substantially to higher levels of accomplishment, and more importantly- happiness.

So I ask you to consider this… where are you playing it safe on your journey to success?  Where are you avoiding challenge or pleasure?  How can you up the anti on intensity in your life? And, how you can punctuate intensity with pleasurable recovery?

Be well!

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