Happiness doesn’t follow success: it leads

Happiness doesn’t follow success: it’s the other way round – Lisa C Walsh, Julia K Boehm & Sonja Lyubomirsky | Aeon Ideas – 24 May, 2019

I am posting this because it refutes an argument I hear far too often: you have to work hard and completely devote yourself to a profession in order to be successful. I’ve never believed it, but I’ve certainly been pressured by it.

Here we see how inverting all those studies that show success leads to happiness can be just as scientifically valid because these studies only show correlation not causation, yet everyone even scientists who should know better jump to conclusions that fit what we initially believe before we even see the data.

Work hard, become successful, then you’ll be happy. At least, that’s what many of us were taught by our parents, teachers and peers.  

The idea that we must pursue success in order to experience happiness is enshrined in the United States’ most treasured institutions (the Declaration of Independence), beliefs (the American dream), and stories (Rocky and Cinderella).

But for many chasers, both success and happiness remain perpetually out of reach. The problem is that the equation might be backwards.

Our hypothesis is that happiness precedes and leads to career success – not the other way around.

Those with greater wellbeing tend to

  • be more satisfied with their lives, and also to
  • experience more positive emotions and
  • fewer negative ones.

Research suggests that it’s these positive emotions – such as excitement, joy, and serenity – that promote success in the workplace.

Relative to their glummer peers, happier people are more satisfied with their jobs; they also receive greater social support from co-workers and better performance evaluations from supervisors

there’s also some evidence that people with higher wellbeing perform better on a range of work-related tasks: one pivotal study found that sales agents with a more positive outlook sold 37 per cent more life-insurance policies than their less positive colleagues.

Happiness is associated with excellent work performance in other areas as well. People who frequently experience positive emotions tend to go above and beyond for their organisations; they’re also less likely to be absent from work or quit their jobs.

According to the longitudinal literature, people who start out happy eventually become successful, too.

The more content a person is at an earlier point in time, the more likely she is to be clear later on about what kind of job she wants, as well as to fill out more job applications, and find employment

Positive emotions are also predictors of later achievement and earnings.

But it’s not enough to establish that happiness comes before success; we want to know, does one cause the other?

Well-designed experiments can control for these variables. For example, studies have randomly assigned people to situations that make them feel neutral, negative or positive emotional states, and then measured their subsequent performance on work-related tasks

These experiments showed that people who are made to feel positive emotions

  • set more ambitious goals,
  • persist at challenging tasks for longer,
  • view themselves and others more favourably, and
  • believe they will succeed.

The weight of experimental evidence suggests that happier people outperform less happy people, and that their positive demeanour is probably the cause.

From our review of more than 170 cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental studies, it’s clear that wellbeing promotes career success in many ways.

Both negative and positive emotions are adaptive to situations – there’s a time to be sad, just like there’s a time to be happy.

So for any business leaders or managers reading this, we’d caution against hiring only overtly happy people or pressuring your employees to be more upbeat. Such strategies have backfired in the past – as in the case of the mandatory jollity imposed on staff at the US supermarket chain Trader Joe’s, where the policy ironically made workers more miserable.

Well, that’s a no-brainer: forcing people to not only do their work in a specific manner but also to show emotions in a specific manner feels intrusive and over-controlling.

Emotions aren’t usually something we deliberately create, but a feeling arising inside us unbidden. To repress and hide that and plaster on an expression that looks happy is an insult to our “true self”.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1951 said that:

‘The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life.’

But he went on:

‘I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.’

If you want to be successful, don’t hang around and wait to find happiness: start there instead.

Lisa C Walsh
is a doctoral candidate in social/personality psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Her work has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and Emotion, among others.
Julia K Boehm
is an assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, California. Her work has been published in The New York Times and Psychological Science, among many others.
Sonja Lyubomirsky
is professor and vice chair of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of The How of Happiness (2008).

5 thoughts on “Happiness doesn’t follow success: it leads

      1. canarensis

        Soooo true. I had one lab job that I absolutely loved…until it turned out that my boss was truly nuts (it was well-hidden at first). The last year or so was a cognitive dissonance/stress nightmare that about killed me & the migraines were the worst they’d been in my entire life. It was beyond bizarre to have simultaneously a job & people I loved dearly & deal with insanity right there all the time. Talk about mental implosion!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Kathy C

    I will remain skeptical about all of this happiness research. It has been so distorted and abused lately. This article reinforced my skepticism, about mindfulness, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/14/the-mindfulness-conspiracy-capitalist-spirituality

    The forced smiles of people in retail, is terrifying on a visceral level. The media distorted and amplified, industry funded studies about smiling, in order to create a more complaint workforce. Often,, just behind the smile they are ready to crack. I avoid engaging in real conversation, because a couple of prompting questions can bring out the truth, and tears. People forced to work odd hours, and suffer mental manipulation in order to maintain low wage jobs, is horrifying. Recently a little conversation with my local retail clerk, who I accused of being too perky, revealed, he had 3 jobs, and a child to support. He was functioning on 3 hours of sleep, since he worked until 2AM, at one job. He then drove 45 minutes home to catch a few winks before showing up at 6AM to offload a truck at his other job. His little girl is so precious, and seems pretty self reliant. This is the reality in low wage rural America. Employees can get reprimanded for not repeating the right phrase, for customers.

    For some odd reason, people seem willing to share their turmoil with me. A clerk at a big box store, told me she was only there because her husband had died, and she could not be alone. She was in her 60’s and wore a brace on her wrist. I see people burning out, and possibly exposing themselves to years of chronic pain. I was there once, three gig jobs, little sleep and no diagnosis. I often wonder how long it will take for people to snap, or break down. There is evidence that people are taking opioids to cope with the pain, caused by these jobs, they do not have the financial ability to take time off or find competent medical care. From my observations, the people in these positions are suspect, because physician were told that they might not like their jobs. When they seek medical care, physicians, instead of diagnosing the physical problem, decide they are malingering. Multiple studies funded by the insurance companies, and amplified in the physician literature have made these false claims.

    There are dark dystopian themes here. A run down any Internet rabbit hole, leads me to some dark conclusions. The pain problem is only one area where the general information out there is deceptive. Like anything else in our system, it is being used as a hook for deceptive marketers. It is a subject they talk around. Nearly any media story about the opioid issue, avoids the topic of pain or chronic intractable pain. It is as if pain does not exist or can be wished away. It is hard to separate the advertising from the factual information. I visualized and did a search of what the average person, doing a search on pain would be exposed to. One such search brought up a suicide message. Apparently desperate people considering suicide might do that search. They don’t miss any opportunity to peddle misinformation and nonsense.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      I agree: modern workers are treated terribly and exploited in every way possible. I complained about that even before my own pain/fatigue made working a steady job impossible for me. I saw it getting much, much worse after the dot com crash.

      So many people were laid off and the remaining were expected to pick up the slack and threatened with being replaced if they objected. At the turn of the millennium my boss said to me, “I would be consider myself lucky to have a job these days.” In other words: suck it up because – the company doesn’t care how miserable you are.

      Then, when the industry revived, they noticed that fewer people had still managed to do the needed work, so that became the new normal. Salaried positions routinely demanded 50 hrs/wk for 40 hrs pay. The bosses used every penny for their own bonuses instead of passing them down to the people actually doing the necessary work and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

      I see a worker’s revolt eventually, especially once all the boomers retire and there aren’t nearly enough younger folks to fill the positions vacated – maybe because the boomers were too busy working to have kids. America is no longer a land of opportunity unless you’re rich.



Other thoughts?

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.