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Are Successful People the Happiest?

Jennifer Post

It's OK to care about your job. It's even OK to care so much about your job that success in it makes you incredibly happy. But at a recent Qualtrics experience management summit, Shawn Achor, author of "The Happiness Advantage," made clear that career success shouldn't define your happiness.

He emphasized that when people set career goals for themselves, they think reaching that goal is going to be the ticket to ultimate happiness. They find that is not always the case, because once they reach that goal, they want more. They end up in a cycle of goal-setting, realizing that didn't make them as happy as they thought, and setting higher goals.

There is nothing wrong with setting goals and being happy or unhappy when you achieve them, but that achievement shouldn't dictate your overall happiness. Achor also explained the difference between happiness and pleasure. He used the example of when he goes running. Is running pleasurable? No. But is he happy that he can move his body and work on his health? Yes.

All of this raises the question, are successful people the happiest?

"If you look at success as just the amount of money someone is earning, no," said Triplemint agent Tyler Whitman. "As a real estate agent, I work with a wide range of earners, and money definitely doesn't equal happiness. However, I view success as someone who consistently works towards and achieves their goals. And I 100 percent believe that a goal-oriented high achiever has a much more profound level of happiness than those who don't reach for the stars."

Achor says the problem is when people are told that happiness exists on the other side of success, because it doesn't.

"If your success rates over the next five years rise, your happiness levels flatline," he said. "The reason for that is you keep changing the goal post for what success looks like."

When people reach their goals and still aren't happy, it's good and bad, according to Austin Bradley, director of special projects at Triplemint. "The bad part is that person now has to investigate other areas of her life to find the cause of her unhappiness. The good part is, through process of elimination and commitment to identifying the cause, she'll eventually make a discovery that will better balance her happiness equation."

Bradley noted that success and happiness are both subjective and relative, which was one of the main points of Achor's keynote.

"Let's assume a baseline for both," Bradley said. "Success equals predictable income, enough for savings and disposable income. Happiness equals expectations minus reality. The expectations of Gen X, millennials and Gen Y, set by our parents and the culture in which we were raised, is that we can reach success doing something we love – which isn't always the case."

One important takeaway is that success and happiness are not mutually inclusive or exclusive. You can be successful and unhappy, and you can be unsuccessful and happy. What is it about success that almost forces people to view it as a sole source of happiness? One reason could be money. That is a big correlation between career success and happiness, despite the old adage that money can't buy happiness.

"The average American spends 40 to 50 hours a week chasing the traditional definition of success," Bradley said. "Putting in that many hours every week without reaching success has negatively impacted the 'happiness equals expectations minus reality' equation."

As most of us grew up, we learned the ritual went like this: You graduate high school and go to college. You graduate college and get a job. You get a job and then buy a house. You buy a house and then have a family. So on and so forth. That is the traditional definition of success. But chasing that in the present employment environment, where there are so many alternatives to the 9-to-5 office job, can take a toll on people who think that is the only way to be successful.

It is important not to directly connect career happening to career happiness. Life is made up of so many things that all need your attention to thrive. Personal relationships, health, wellbeing and professional relationships all have a place in your life and need to be nurtured.

Whitman suggested a healthy balance of daily routines and remaining open to fun life surprises. Focus on things that make you happy, but also be on the lookout for new adventures.

"Relying on one piece of your life to dictate your happiness puts too much pressure there and ultimately puts unrealistic expectations on your career outlook," Bradley said. "Where you put your time, care and attention is what thrives."

Image Credit: Shutterstock/GStockStudio
Jennifer Post
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Jennifer Post is a professional writer with published works focusing on small business topics including marketing, financing, and how-to guides. She has also published articles on business formation, business software, public relations and human resources. Her work has also appeared in Fundera and The Motley Fool.