Success doesn’t guarantee happiness (despite what the experts say) and here’s why.

This post originally appeared on


“I wish everyone could have all the money that I have, could have all the fame that I’ve gotten and all the attention, and have all their dreams come true, to realize that that is not the answer.” __ Jim Carrey

The Happiness Lie

I learned something new today.  I learned that everything we think we know about how to be happy is WRONG.  That’s right.  Have we really been chasing our tail to try to achieve that elusive HAPPINESS? Before we look more closely at this, it is worth considering what the established formula for happiness is:

Have you spotted the clue?

Happiness at Harvard study

Broadly speaking, the perceived wisdom is that achieving success is the path to happiness, and that the path to success is through hard work.  This is the model that we use in all areas of life and have done so for many years.  What if that formula was wrong?  What if everything that we have been doing for years in pursuit of happiness was only leading us to dissatisfaction and unhappiness?

According to American Psychologist, Shawn Anchor, living our lives to the accepted formula in pursuit of happiness is not only ineffective, but also detrimental to health.  He argues that the way to be truly happy lies not in working hard to become successful, but in social interaction and connectedness.  Not only that, he argues that our state of happiness impacts positively on those around us; and our happiness state influences other people’s happiness state.  Nothing new there in my opinion, as one of my favourite sayings, is that behaviour breeds behaviour.  I believe this wholeheartedly, and I consider it to be one of the most effective ways of influencing change in other people.  Take a look at this case study for a demonstration on how powerful this can be.

Happiness is key to productivity

Shawn Anchor asserts that we are most productive and focused when we are in a happy state. Again, I don’t think there is anything very contemporary about this. If we are unhappy or stressed, it can become difficult to focus on anything, let alone work.  It would seem that if happiness is the key to productivity, and success is not the route to happiness – we most definitely HAVE been chasing our tails!  I think where Shawn Anchor’s argument does become interesting, is when he talks about the formula of happiness in relation to how successful we are, and that we need to reverse this formula to get ahead in the happiness stakes.  This premise pretty much gives us permission (if ever we needed it) to get off the treadmill that many of us find ourselves on in pursuit of happiness that – no matter what we do – continues to elude us.  There are many people who live their lives driven by the idea that great success will lead them to greater happiness.  If I could only get that promotion, I will be happier.If I had more money, I will be happyIf I get my dream house, I will be happy

Shawn Anchor, in the his Ted Talk, makes a compelling argument that success does not make us any happier.  He explains this in terms of brain biology.

He was asked why he studied Happiness at the elite educational establishment of Harvard: what possibly could Harvard students have to be unhappy about?  In addressing this question, he goes on to explain that there is an implicit assumption that our external world predicts our happiness.  It seems that only 10% of our happiness is predicated on our external world.If this is the case, where does the other 90% come from?  If it has nothing to do do with what we have, how successful we are, or how much money we have, does this mean we are doomed to have only 10% happiness in our lives?  That seems a pretty dire scenario.So, where exactly does the majority of our happiness come from?  According to the latest research, 90% of our happiness comes from the way in which our brain processes the experiences we have in our day to day lives (taking us back to brain biology).

Getting back to the Harvard question, Shawn Anchor says that the initial excitement and pride of getting into a prestigious college diminishes within a few days and instead, the students’ brains focus on the pressure, the heavy workload and deadlines.  He reasons, that this is because our brain never lets us be satisfied with our achievements.  Once we have reached our goal – our brain is hardwired to not value that goal, and therefore we end up with a never ending loop of seeking success/achieve a goal to get that dopamine hit that makes us (temporarily) feel good when we have our desired result.

It seems that once we achieve something, it becomes the norm.  Once something becomes the norm, we no longer appreciate the achievement as anything special.  Why does this happen?  It is all down to how our brain is wired.  Once we have achieved our goal, what does the brain do?  It moves the goal posts.

How to get ahead at work

One of the most interesting gems from the TED Talk is around how to achieve success in the workplace.  Did you know that only 25% of job success comes from how intelligent you are?  It seems that 75% comes from your level of optimism, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge rather than a threat.  I guess this is where personality characteristics and mindset trump IQ.  I think it certainly turns on it’s head anecdotal gripes about people who get ahead but “are not deserving, and are in with the boss”.  Perhaps it isn’t nepotism that has been at play after all, but the fact that a can-do-attitude and solid inter-personal skills are more effective in teams and influencing others.


Why is any of this important?

It seems to me that, the breakthrough that experiences and connectedness is what leads to greater happiness rather than material possessions, is not new.  Many of us have long known that true value comes from relationships that we have with the people around us; and that isolation (whether that be due to heavy work commitments or otherwise), leads to unhappiness, and even poor mental wellbeing.

This viewpoint doesn’t just come from an evolved emotional intelligence (it took a long time coming and so I claim it with pride), I believe it is replicated many times across society.  The pursuit of happiness through material possessions or achievement of goals may be true for some people.  Who those people are and why, is outside the scope of this piece. I started off this blog thinking that I had learned something new.

As I have been writing, I have realised that – actually I haven’t.  I don’t know that all people do chase success in pursuit of happiness.  I think people chase success for many reasons – including having a psyche that is defined by what they are externally, rather than who they are internally.  Perhaps they are seeking validation.  Or perhaps they simply want to make a difference in the world.

The success lie

I am wondering whether the issue here is more about the success lie, than the happiness lie.  If everyone bought into this, then what would happen to ambition?  What would happen to those that change our world for the good through their hard work, ambition and drive?  If everyone gave up in the pursuit of happiness – where would we be?Are people who are successful, truly unhappy?  I am not entirely sure that they are.  Ok, so some people may measure their worth by what they achieve, and are never truly happy with the end result.  Perhaps our brain biology simply then creates the desire for us to move forward again.  Does that mean that we are unhappy with the success we achieved?

The key to happiness AND success is positivity

If happiness is on the other side of success, our brain never gets there.  __Shawn Anchor

Within the 15 minute TED presentation, Shawn Anchor concludes with the premise that if we raise our positivity in the present, this gives a happiness advantage.  He goes on to say, that the brain when in a positive state, performs better than when in a neutral or stressed state.

Where I really support Shawn Anchor’s views, is in how this formula reversal relates to education. Just not in the way he applies it.  The education system (both here in the UK as well as in the US), is calibrated to the average student. This is advantageous for less than average students (who have something to strive for), but not for above average or gifted student who is not challenged within this model.  Students should not be told simply that if they work hard enough they will be successful; running the risk of becoming stressed and impacting negatively on their mental wellbeing. Perhaps they should be taught how to live with a positive mindset (as proposed by Shawn Anchor). In doing so, they will increase their wellbeing (and therefore their happiness), as well as improving their capacity for learning as the activation of dopamine switches on the learning centres of the brain.

How to increase positivity in the brain

There are a number of ways to switch your brain into a positive state:

  • Random acts of KINDESS
  • Practising GRATITUDE
  • JournallingExerciseMeditation

Effectively, this practice when done continuously over 21 days rewires the brain, leading to more optimism, which leads to more happiness and ultimately more success.

All it takes is a two minutes a day for the brain to create a more positive mindset.



NEXT IN SERIES:   Happiness is equal to or greater than the events of your life minus your expectation of how life should be.

NEXT IN SERIES:   How to rewire your brain to experience life more positively

You can watch Shawn Anchor’s Ted Talk here.  It is not only worth checking out to learn more about the research underpinning a revised happiness (at work) theory, Shawn Anchor himself is a very entertaining presenter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.