Wednesday, July 18, 2020

Chickens, eggs, and happiness

Do you need to be successful first to be happy, or does happiness produce success?

It’s an important question, because making happiness conditional on success is the usual path; and it doesn’t seem to be working for many people. They endure considerable amounts of unhappiness, often for many years, in the belief that when success comes they will finally be happy. What if it isn’t true? That’s surely worth thinking about carefully.
When I started working, I bought into all the conventional ideas about what made for a happy and successful life. A good career, a good income, a good position, a good pension to round it all off. Get those first, and happiness will surely follow.

Well, I got most of them and I found that happiness somehow hadn’t seen the need to fulfill its part of the bargain. Oh, I was happy sometimes—maybe quite often. But it wasn’t due to any of those. Earning a high salary brought stress and ethical compromises I wasn’t happy about. A top position in the hierarchy brought yet more pressures, along with jealousy and politically-inspired dirty tricks. Inflation ate into my salary and pension fund and employers went back on their promises.

What really brought me happiness rarely had anything to do with conventional ideas of success. Mostly, it was due to things totally unconnected with my work. Of course, I was sometimes happy at work too. When I was busy doing something that I enjoyed and made me happy, I was often amazingly successful. When I tried to be successful, and accepted temporary unhappiness and boredom as its price, I rarely managed to reach my goals. If I accepted short-term unhappiness as the price of long-term success—and I very often did—what I got in return was the opposite: short-term success paid for with long-term unhappiness.

Hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of people spend their lives doing work they hate, and enduring pressures that ruin their health and cripple their relationships, with the sole purpose of being successful; which usually means gaining money, position, or fame, or all three. They tell themselves that once they’ve got what they want they’ll be happy. It rarely happens. What they gain has far less real value than all they have sacrificed to get it.

Weighing the evidence

Research has shown that, far from leading to happiness, success is more often dependent on being happy first. Happy people do better work, forge stronger relationships, are more likeable, learn more, take more productive risks, have better health, and live longer. How is this not success? How is a life doing things that you dislike and don’t make you feel happy—and that cause you stress, pain, and frustration—going to lead to enormous happiness sometime in the future; aside, that is, from the pure joy you would get by ceasing to do it at all?

Do you need wealth to be happy? If that is the case, most captains of industry should be delirious with joy all the time. I must say it doesn’t show. Mostly they’re rather grimly set on making yet more wealth for themselves. Perhaps even they don’t have enough money and success to produce the promised happiness? If so, that final state is so far beyond the reach of all ordinary people as to be worthless as an objective.

Some of you may object that lack of money produces misery. Sure enough. But since even extreme wealth seems to do little better in the happiness-producing line, the only logical conclusion must be that neither wealth, nor poverty, in themselves have much of a link with happiness. It’s more likely that what you do with however much, or little, wealth you possess is going to have a far greater impact on how you feel about your life and whether it brings you happiness.

Fame is the same. Are all famous people amazingly happy? I can’t see it, can you? We assume that they ought to be, but many are clearly not. If that’s the case, then fame has nothing much to do with happiness either. The same is true for status and position. All are neutral in terms of producing happiness. For some who possess them, they help. For others, they produce only misery. Isn’t it more likely that happy people stay happy if they become rich, successful, or famous, and use their wealth in happy ways; and miserable people do exactly the opposite, however successful they are?

So what is success?

We need a new definition of life success, I think; one that isn’t based solely on material possessions or hierarchical outcomes. Rather than equate success with wealth, power, or fame—or even achievements—and tell ourselves that happiness will follow, it would be more sensible to equate success in life with happiness, then look for whatever furthered that happiness.

We’ve been told that money equals happiness. It doesn’t. That work, hard work, is good for you and leads to success and happiness. No, that doesn’t follow either. How about saying that what makes you happy produces happiness, whether that’s work, pleasure, relationships, or just the love of a good cat?

When it comes down to it, being happy is what nearly everyone wants, so why not take it wherever it comes from? And if, as the researchers suggest, being happy is the best route to being successful as well, what alternative is likely to be any better?

So take note. Stress, overwork, long hours, constant striving, and ruthless political manoevering may well produce money, power, and fame, but they won’t deliver on the promise of happiness.

Besides, while you’re grimly clawing your way towards the top and suffering as a result, won’t it be truly maddening if some happy person sails past you, enjoying every moment of life, and sweeps ahead on a wave of sheer pleasure in what they are doing?

You pays your money, as the saying goes, and you takes your choice. Just make sure that the choice you make is really worth what you will need to pay for it. Conventional pictures of success are frightful price gougers, all of them.

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon
Sign up for our Email Newsletter

Labels: , , ,

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar


Eric said...

You can make or achieve success.. but you can only make happiness.

That may seem confusing to some, but it's true. You can't achieve happiness because it's not an ends, it's a way of living/thinking. Success is a goal and can be "achieved".

Until you understand that happiness is always under your control you can never be happy. Possessions, Money, Jobs, and friends can't make you happy only you can ( although it can help at times ).

I see and hear it every day from people around me...

"If I only had more money" ( but living above the poverty line )

"If I only had a man"

"If I only had a PS3"

"If I could only tell my mother off"

Unhappiness is also a terrible catch-22. Those that are unhappy are less likely to find and keep money, friends, jobs, or whatever their need is. I don't know about you, but unhappy people are unpleasant to be around for extended periods of time.

7:39 AM  
marti said...

I've often said that money can't buy happiness at all. It can and does prevent more. My childhood has many examples of people having a lot more than I did or my family did. What I see now is that I was unhappy by choice, not circumstances. Nowadays, I have more than I'd ever expect as far as resources goes. Once the bills are paid, more money doesn't really matter much. I choose to be happy or choose to be miserable. It's in that level of accountability that the truth lives. Good post.

9:41 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for an interesting comment, Eric.

I agree that you cannot make yourself happy, since it's an internal state, whereas being successful is an external one. That's why making your happiness contingent on some external situation (riches, popularity, fame) isn't likely to work.

Happiness is also an emotion, and no one can control their emotions in the sense of making them appear or disappear at will — which is not the same as being in control of your emotions, which is stopping them from running amok when they have appeared.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:11 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

That is such a good point, Marti.

A great many people are unhappy by choice. They choose to set themselves impossible targets, express dissatisfaction with what they have, or yearn after some unattainable ideal.

It's equally easy to choose to be as happy as possible, whetever life throws at you.

Sadly, in our consumerist society, happiness sells fewer goods. Look at all the advertisements that promise endless happiness once you have bought a specific product. The economy relies on as many people being as unhappy as possible. If any purchase gave lasting happiness, people would stop buying.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:17 AM  
Ronnie said...

Another great post, Carmine!

It's true that happiness and success are equated together, but your analogy of the chicken and the egg really struck me.

Just as Eric said, most people equate happiness with "things" and they believe that happiness will come "if only... [fill in the blank]... happens"

Many of my clients suffer from a lack of passion in their career and, of course, this causes great stress.

It's often difficult to find passion largely because it requires a strategic shift in thinking that happiness doesn't come from money, wealth, power, or status.

And thinking in this way means we have to give up control of the external factors and focus our attention inward.

Once we discern things that first make us happy, something funny happens... everything else seems to fall into place and the stresses of an incompatible passion dissolves.

Keep spreading the news, Carmine!


Author of Stress Busters
Sign-up for ACQYR's free stress course

6:19 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Ronnie.

Glad you enjoyed the post.

Keep reading, my friend.

6:42 AM  
johann said...

It is not surprising that most of today's 'leaders' are posturers. The more mediocre an organization is, the more the person at the top has to pretend to be a 'leader'. In today's world, leaders are created by the amount of funding they amass. Once in the leadership position, they are then forced to hide their incompetence, and lack of vision, and thus prolong the charade.

1:52 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Interesting points, Johann. You may well be right.

Thanks for the comment.

2:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.