What Comes First Happiness or Success?
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Last year I coached Amy*, a top-performing marketing leader in a high-growth company. She was one of the company's most valued employees. Intelligent, committed and well-liked by her peers. She was precisely the kind of talent companies want to employ.
When the Director of Human Resources asked what role she was interested in next, Amy froze. She didn't tell her employer this, but she was on the verge of burnout and was terrified that more responsibilities would push her off the edge.
Amy often stayed at the office late and came in early to finish her work. She bailed on evenings out with friends, ditched yoga class too many times to count and could often be found on Slack late into the evening and on weekends. When we first started working together, she was on the verge of quitting. Yes, her job had given her tremendous opportunities, and all the things we associate with career success. She had recently bought a condo and a car. In the few years that she had spent at the company, she was offered three promotions.
By all measures, Amy was a success. But she wasn't happy.
Most of us hold the belief that success will lead to happiness. In his Ted Talk on this topic, Shawn Anchor, a writer and positive psychology practitioner, points out that we believe happiness will come once we are successful. We tell ourselves, that "If I just work harder, I'll be more successful, and if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier."
Anchor proposes that this formula is not only broken, it's backwards.
There is good evidence to support that happiness precedes success, not the other way around. In an article published in the Journal of Career Assessment in 2018, researchers Lisa C. Walsh, Dr. Julia Boehm and Dr. Sonya Lyubomirsky dug into the data to see which one comes first: happiness or career success? In their review of 225 studies on the link between the two, the research confirms that happy people are more successful in their careers.
Here are just some of the workplace outcomes correlated with happiness:
Happy people sell more, earn more, get better reviews from their superiors, bounce back better after setbacks and solve problems more creatively.
The case for investing in happiness, both your own and your employees', is strong. But at the end of the day, don't we all want to be happy? I know I do.
Now, I'm not saying we always have to be happy. That is an impossible standard. The richness of our human experience includes feeling a wide range of emotions- both positive and negative. But if you still think that reaching the next professional milestone is when you'll finally be happy, let me tell you right here and now, that you are wrong. It would help if you focused on happiness first.
Like Amy did.
Amy didn't quit her job. The investment her company made in our coaching sessions was a secret retention tool they didn't even know was needed. Amy moved the dial on happiness with some simple transformations. First, in our work together, she discovered that she was worthy of happiness, regardless of her success. She realized that she liked her job, but that she was trying to do too much, and that was leading to burnout.
Together, we came up with ways she could increase her well-being without quitting. These were small changes, nothing drastic. For example, Amy committed to leaving work two days a week by 5:30 pm so she could start playing tennis again, a pastime she had given up a year earlier when work got too stressful. She put limits on her use of the work phone on the weekend so she could do things that restored her energy, like seeing good friends and exercising. She also doubled down on learning, investing in a course on creative writing that she had longed to take for years but never made the time to do.
And her efforts paid off at work. In her most recent performance review, her staff said she inspired them to grow personally and professionally. She felt more engaged and energized at work. Amy was happy and successful.
So I leave you with this question: Are you investing enough time and energy into your happiness? It may be just what you need to succeed.
If you like this topic and want to know more:
1) Start discovering what matters most to you with one of my favourite coaching activities called Start with the End in Mind. Download it here.
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*Amy is not the real name of my client. I've changed some details to protect her privacy.