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What’s wrong with this statement?

by Jeff Cobb

Picture of man thinkingSuccess leads to happiness.

On the surface, this seems like a straightforward enough statement, one that’s not difficult to accept. But there are at least three problems with it. The first two may be obvious to you:

  • Defining “success” is difficult
  • Defining “happiness” is difficult.

Because these concepts are difficult, there is – as far as I can tell – a near universal tendency to associate success with attainment of one variety or another (e.g., lots of money, education from the best schools, high social status) and happiness with mere pleasure (or, as a guest writer here recently put it, with “perkiness.”)

Even if we can get past these issues and arrive at a deeper understanding of success and happiness, the third issue may not be obvious:

  • The order is wrong.

However you happen to define either success or happiness, it’s actually the latter that tends to lead to the former – i.e. happiness leads to success – rather than the other way around. At least, that’s what a growing body of research seems to indicate.

For more background and a glimpse into the research, I recommend a recent Harvard Business Review IdeaCast (@ 15 minutes) with Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage. In the podcast, Shawn talks about both success and happiness as concepts and argues that traditional approaches to success often interfere with real happiness – and ultimately with true success.

Anchor’s perspective is an important one, I think, for lifelong learners. One of the key motivators for learning tends to be “success” in one form or another and consciously or not, success is usually perceived as a step towards happiness.  The problem, however, is that the steps never end – one success demands the next – and it’s easy enough to find yourself well down a path you never meant to take.

Starting from a different perspective – one that puts happiness first – is no small challenge. In most formal education systems conventional notions of success as attainment – high grades, degrees, credentials – are emphasized from day one. Schools are about “success,” not happiness.  (What if the opposite was true?)

Breaking free from this mindset after years as a student is perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the serious lifelong learner. There is no easy way to do it, though Anchor’s comments point to habits that I emphasize often here at Mission to learn – particularly consciousness, practice, and reflection.

Also, it is important to emphasize that a focus on happiness does not take success out of the equation. Rather, it leads to a higher ideal of success and ultimately to a much higher level of success than traditional approaches. In short, it gets the order right:

Happiness leads to success.

Jeff

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posted on November 30, 2010

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Aleckson November 30, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Once again, thank you for providing these reflective posts during this time of the year. Last year your post on taking notes had a big impact on my year. Although defining happiness is contextual and temporal, I do believe you need reflection before you can define any of the terms you mentioned. Many successful gurus preach of the importance of getting away individually to a remote location to reflect once a year. Easy to say, very hard to do, especially if you have a family. However, many successful and happy writers have used a getaway to encourage reflection. Try.

Jeff Cobb November 30, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Thanks for commenting, Jon – I’m glad you found it helpful. I’d actually argue that true happiness (as, for example, Seligman and other practitioners of positive psychology might define it) is significantly less contextual and temporal than happiness as mere pleasure. But in any case, reflection is key, and I agree that getting away helps a great deal! – Jeff

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