Why happiness is the key to success

“How to build a lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to build a happy life.


Owithout going too far on a limb, I believe that almost everyone would like two things from their job and career: success and happiness. They want to do relatively well financially, receive fair recognition for their accomplishments, enjoy their work as much as possible, and become happier as a person. These are reasonable goals, but they can be a lot to ask – so many people, especially ambitious and hard-working people, simplify them in a logical way: they seek success first, then assume that success will lead to happiness.

But this reasoning is flawed. The pursuit of success has costs that can end up lowering happiness, as many parched, lonely workaholics can tell you.

That doesn’t mean you have to choose between success and happiness. You can get both. But you have to reverse the order of operations: instead of trying first to obtain success and hoping that it leads to happiness, start by working on your happiness, which will reinforce your success.

Ssuccess and happiness are generally positively correlated, as many labor studies have shown. For example, companies in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list seen an average increase of 14% in stock prices each year from 1998 to 2005, compared to 6% for the market as a whole. And since Gallup data has showamong business units with employee engagement levels (i.e. employees who reported feeling listened to, respected and intellectually stimulated, and who had a best friend at work) in the 99th percentile, 73% perform above the company average and 78% perform above the industry average.

From this correlation, many assume causation – from success to happiness. In my years as an executive, I’ve found that people strongly believe that pay increases, especially big ones, will have a big and lasting effect on their job satisfaction. The data, however, tells us a different story: large wage increases have only a limited and transitory effect on well-being. In 2017, researchers tracked the salary and job satisfaction (measured on a scale of 0 to 10) of almost 35,000 German workers over several years. The study found that the anticipation of a 100% salary increase increases job satisfaction by about a quarter of a digit in the year preceding the increase. The raise increases that satisfaction boost by another fifth of a number. By year four, the increase had fallen to less than a fifth overall.

In other words, suppose your job satisfaction is 6 out of 10, that’s not bad, but it could be better. If your boss double your salary it will take you to about 6.5 and then it will drop back to about 6.2. This may not be the best strategy to help you love your job.

And that’s not even taking into account the cost that increased career success can have on the whole. life Satisfaction. In 2016, psychologists measured career success by asking 990 college-educated full-time professionals to compare their career achievements to those of others. They found that people generally enjoyed the money and status that relative success produced. However, success did not lead to complete contentment: it indirectly reduced life satisfaction, probably through time constraints, stress, and impoverished social relationships.

However, much stronger and more positive results emerge when the researchers reverse the order, examining not the effects of success on happiness, but the effect of happiness on success. In 2005, researchers reviewed hundreds of studies, including experiments to establish causation, and concluded that happiness leads to success in many areas of life, including marriage, friendship, health, income, and job performance.

One explanation could be that happiness makes us more attractive, so we are rewarded by others. Alternatively, happiness could make us more productive. New experimental research suggests both are true. For example, in 2021, researchers studied Chinese live webcasters, for which voluntary tips from viewers are the main source of income. They found that when they showed more positive emotion, their tips immediately increased, suggesting that people who appear happy are rewarded in the market. Another experiment involved British test subjects engaging in a time-limited arithmetic task and math test. Researchers found that subjects who were shown a clip of a comedy beforehand were about 12% more productive on the task and test than those who were not, and that the funnier they found the clip, the more productive they were .

Owhere are you an employee or an employer, it’s a better investment to increase happiness at work and in life, than just trying to increase success metrics.

The first thing to remember is that happiness requires balance. No matter how much you love your job, overwork will become an obstacle to well-being. Researchers in 2020 study 414 Iranian bank employees found that workaholic behavior (such as perfectionism and work addiction) strongly predicted work incivility (such as hostility, invasion of privacy, exclusionary behavior, and gossip). Workaholic behaviors also degraded the quality of family life (measured in disagreement with statements such as “My involvement in work gives me a sense of achievement; this, in turn, helps me to be a better person in my family “).

You need to protect yourself against workaholism in yourself and help your friends and family who suffer from it. But just as important, employers should not encourage overwork, which is likely to require effort and attention on their part, as research shows that managers generally underestimate employee well-being issues.

Once the amount of work has been mastered, happiness at work requires meaning and purpose. I wrote in this column that the two key aspects of meaningful work are deserved success and service to others. Earned success involves a sense of accomplishment and recognition for a job well done, while service to others requires knowing the real people who benefit from your work. A great deal of research shows the importance of these aspects of the job. For example, Gallup has revealed that people who serve their communities and receive recognition for it report significantly less stress and worry in their lives than those who don’t (either because they don’t serve their communities or don’t receive recognition) .

Meanwhile, the most meaningful jobs tend to be the most service-oriented ones. According According to 2016 research from the Pew Research Center, proportionally more workers in the nonprofit and government sectors — that is, generally service-oriented work — said their jobs made them feel identity as workers in the private sector. It is more difficult to find the connection to the service in some professions than in others, but it can usually be done. Years ago, I was working with a team of university researchers on creating policies to improve banking regulation. A researcher particularly passionate about the project told me that he always remembered that his work was important because poor people need access to credit at a reasonable price, which requires less bureaucracy.

Even if you have trouble seeing who benefits, because the people you reach with your work are very far away or your work touches them indirectly, try to look a little closer, maybe even in the cubicle neighbor. You can still enjoy the effects of service by helping your colleagues, and it is clear evidence that supporting co-workers can help alleviate negative emotions at work.

In the end, although success and happiness are linked, the chemistry is mostly one-way – and not in the way most people think. Working on your success to be happier is inefficient at best and can blow up in your face and lead to UNHappiness. But working on your happiness gives you the best chance of getting both.

Eeven if everything If that makes sense to you, you may still fall into old habits of seeking happiness via worldly success at work. Don’t feel too bad, I do it too, even as a specialist in this field. Whenever I notice that my hours are reaching workaholic levels and my dreams of happiness revolve around accomplishment, I like to reread a short story published in 1922 by Franz Kafka entitled “A Hunger Artist”. It features a man starving himself in a cage to make a living as a traveling carnival act. He is obsessed with his work and, as a perfectionist, pursues what he calls “unwavering fasting”. The hunger artist is proud of his success, though it is always grim, and, Kafka writes, “if a good-natured man who felt sorry for him ever wanted to explain to him that his sadness probably came from his fast… the hunger artist responded with an outburst of rage.

Over time, the act of the hunger artist falls out of favor. Desperate to revive his faltering career, he tries to fast longer than he ever has before. Instead, he is completely ignored and left alone in his cage. In the end, the hunger artist dies of starvation. In a twist of absurdism – we might even call it Kafkaesque– the protagonist admits just before expiring that the only reason he engaged in his art was because he couldn’t find any food he liked.

I’m not that bad, of course, but I’m a little hungry inside, and so are you. Here is my advice: you will not find happiness by giving up happiness. Don’t starve yourself. Your chances of success will increase if you eat.

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