Improving Quality of Life

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The Relentless Pursuit of Success – Addiction to Success – Is Source of Dissatisfaction and Unhappiness

Conventional wisdom holds that there is a correlation between success and happiness. Work hard, become more successful, and if you are more successful, then you’ll be happy.

American culture values overwork (see workism) and encourages mindsets that promote addiction to success. The notion that we must pursue success to be happy is enshrined in the American Constitution (the Declaration of Independence) and in widely held beliefs (the American Dream). Since most people want to be happy, they chase success like a carrot on a stick, believing that happiness will be achieved once they get into college, land their dream job, get that next promotion, lose those extra pounds or (fill in the blank)...

However, Shawn Achor, one of the world's leading experts on the link between happiness and success, author of The Happiness Advantage, has shown that happiness drives success, not the other way around. A happy state of mind is not a reward for success. It is an advantage – a competitive edge for getting ahead. So, if you want to succeed, don't wait to find happiness: Start there instead.

In the words of Albert Schweizer, "Success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success."

Addiction to success – there is no faster path to misery than conditional happiness

Success addicts only find happiness when they realize their ambitions; everything in between is just filler. They often sacrifice their personal lives for their true love, success. On anniversaries, they travel for work, they forgo marriage for their career – earning them the appellation "married to their work." Ultimately, they tend to defer everything until after some project or promotion has been completed.

Alas, there' s no such thing as definitive success, and many of us never feel that we are "successful enough". Once the thrill of the previous victory wears off, it’s time to move on to the next goal. Psychologists call this phenomenon the "hedonic treadmill", whereby the gratification fades almost instantly and forces us to race to the next reward to avoid the feeling of falling behind.

“Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy”, said Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 race-car driver. “For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line (see Retired – Who am I now?). His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead. In this case, there will be no life after success.”

Lessons from the Olympic competition on the role of success in happiness

There is much to be learned from Olympic competitions about the role of success as a factor in our happiness. Even being the best athlete in the world does not guarantee lasting happiness. This is due to a phenomenon called "hedonic adaptation", whereby happiness has a natural tendency to revert to its baseline level – we get used to it.

Achieving a goal can even be problematic, especially when that goal marks the end of progress. Some researchers suggest that the cessation of this forward motion can lead to a sense of emptiness. This is precisely what Shcherbakova described in Beijing. After winning the gold medal, the Russian figure skater said that "this is what I worked for every day," but that she also felt an "emptiness inside."

Take a hard look at your goals and pursue them differently

This realization doesn’t mean that we should abandon all goals, however. We just need to understand them and pursue them in a different way.

1. Concede that you won’t find true happiness on the hedonic treadmill of your professional life. For those of us who have worshipped hard work and sought greater success, this is almost an admission of failure. The quest for success becomes a source of dissatisfaction and frustration when it plays an excessive role in our lives. Over time, I have come to realize that happiness is found in deeply ordinary activities: enjoying a walk or a conversation with a loved one, instead of working an extra hour, for example.

2. Find the right metrics for success. Work can be part of your success criteria, but you shouldn’t judge yourself only on material and external outcomes. In fact, the mere pursuit of power and prestige (extrinsic motivation) can sap your initial passion for an activity (intrinsic motivation), which tends to provide greater satisfaction, and fulfillment than extrinsic motivation (see does passion always drive performance and emotional well-being?). Therefore, the criteria for success should include milestones that allow you to realize your full potential, such as perfecting your craft and helping others.

3. Break down your long-term goals into smaller blocks, or even daily goals, when possible. That way, you will make progress every day without being too dependent on distant results.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear challenges the notion that the key to success lies in setting and achieving big goals. Instead, he argues that success is the product of daily actions leading to small and frequent achievements, rather than the occasional big success. This approach builds momentum and sets in motion a cycle of success and happiness.

Research shows that, when it comes to our well-being, in life and at work, progress consistently trumps achievement. Perhaps this is because the end goal is subjective and sometimes arbitrary, whereas progress is clear and unambiguous: I need to lose 30 pounds, for example, and I’ve lost more this week than last. The more importance you place on the end goal, the more you expose yourself to emotional problems.

4. Find joy in the journey, and if it eludes you, reassess your mission. Indeed, if you can’t find happiness during the pursuit, it won’t last long when you reach the finish line. In their 2011 book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer analyzed the daily well-being of 238 employees at 7 companies and found that satisfaction came not from big, bold victories, but from forward momentum in meaningful work.

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