January 28, 2020

What Comes First: Success or Happiness?

“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). Most people want to be happy, so we chase success like a proverbial carrot on a stick — thinking that contentment lurks just the other side of getting into college, landing a dream job, being promoted, or making six figures. 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. In psychological science, “happiness” relates to “subjective wellbeing” and “positive emotions” (we use the terms interchangeably). 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.

Let’s look first at the cross-sectional studies that examine people at a single point. This allows researchers to determine whether happiness and success are correlated. Relative to their glummer peers, happier people are more satisfied with their jobs; they also receive greater social support from co-workers and better performance evaluations from supervisors. Notably, it might be that bosses give happy employees higher performance evaluations due to a halo effect, where a favorable impression in one area (such as happiness) influences opinion in another area (such as work ability): “Tim is happy, so he must be great at his job too.” However, 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 percent more life-insurance policies than their less positive colleagues.”

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