by Meridith Levinson

Which Comes First: The Pursuit of Happiness or Success?

Apr 19, 2011

Success won't necessarily make you happy, but happiness will lead you to success, brain research shows.

Are you a happy person? I’m not. I’d like to think that I am. Certainly, I’m happy at times, but at my core I’m a pretty miserable human being. I’m negative, judgmental, scornful and envious. My glass is invariably half empty. But heck, at least I’m honest!

I disclose all of this personal hoo-hah because I recently wrote an article about the relationship between happiness and career success. The work and research of Shawn Achor, a corporate strategy consultant and former Harvard University psychology professor, inspired the article. Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, explains how happiness fuels success. (Clearly, I’m doomed to failure.) I originally wanted to interview Achor so that I could blow bazooka-sized holes through his happy-pappy message.

Turns out, hard science backs up the seemingly wistful connection between happiness and success. Research in the field of neuroscience shows that happy, positive brains are more productive than negative ones, and research in the field of emotional intelligence reveals that optimism and friendships are greater predictors of career success than pure intellect and technical skills.

That kind of research is tough to argue with, even for a stickler like me, but I still think it’s possible to be successful and miserable. I mean, come on, if happy people are more successful than unhappy people, does that mean that miserable people like myself are destined for failure? Even I, a pessimist, find that hard to believe.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not like I’m happy being unhappy. I don’t want to be this way. But trying to be positive is so hard. It’s as if my brain isn’t capable of doing anything except passing judgment and finding fault.

Until I talked with Achor (my happiness guru), I never understood how I could change my attitude or outlook. Achor offers five simple practices that hopeless cranks like myself can employ to brighten our dark dispositions. Starting tomorrow, I’m going to put them to use. I’ll report on my progress. I genuinely hope they make me a happier, more optimistic, productive and successful individual. As the French say, On va voir.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with a final thought from Achor that I wasn’t about to fit into my other story:

Most people think, ‘If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and if I’m more successful, I’ll be happy. That [thought process] decreases happiness. It’s backwards in terms of how the brain works. Every time you have a success at work, your brain changes the goal posts of what success looks like. You hit your sales target, and the sales target changes. If happiness is on the opposite side of success, our brains will never get there because success keeps changing. That’s part of the reason happiness is so elusive for many of us.

But if we put happiness first, our success rates will rise because our brains are able to work harder, faster and more intelligently when they’re positive. If we hope success will lead to happiness, it decreases the chance of achieving both, but if you can reverse the happiness formula, you can get your brain to work at a more optimal level.