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.
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