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.
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
- 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.
is professor and vice chair of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of The How of Happiness (2008).