Entrepreneurs

A Brutal Truth About the Misunderstood Relationship Between Happiness and Success, Backed by (Considerable) Science

Most of us hope success will make us happier. Build a thriving business, be happier. Advance in a career, be happier. Afford a bigger house, be happier.

Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes success can be a driver of happiness 

But more often the opposite is true. As a 2005 study published in Psychological Bulletin that reviewed over 200 different happiness studies found, happiness is much more likely to drive success. 

According to the researchers:

The characteristics related to positive affect include confidence, optimism, and self-efficacy; likability and positive (outlooks towards) others; sociability, activity, and energy; prosocial behavior; immunity and physical well-being; effective coping with challenge and stress; and originality and flexibility.

What these attributes share is that they all encourage active involvement with goal pursuits.

The success of happy people rests on two main factors. First, because happy people experience frequent positive moods, they have a greater likelihood of working actively toward new goals while experiencing those moods. Second, happy people are in possession of past skills and resources, which they have built over time during previous pleasant moods.

Or in non researcher-speak, happy people are primed to pursue goals.

And because their happiness makes them more likely to have pursued goals in the past, they have developed skills that help them be more likely to accomplish their goals in the future.

Which results in a self-perpetuating loop of happiness = success = happiness = success.

Keep in mind your happiness meter doesn’t have to always be high. A 2012 study published in PLOS One found that feeling, for example, both cheerful and dejected at the same time (what psychologists call a “mixed emotional experience“) was a precursor to improved well-being. 

According to the researchers, “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being.” Noticing and embracing a wide spectrum of emotions, both good and bad, is the path to short- and long-term happiness.

And both are paths to greater success.

So if you aren’t as happy as you would like to be, stop thinking success will be the cure.

Making more money, for example, can certainly improve your well-being. But after a certain point, it won’t make you happier: A 2018 study found that somewhere between $60,000 and $75,000 per year is ideal for “emotional well-being.” Daniel Kahneman’s famous study pegs the number at $75,000. As another study shows, people tend to “grossly overestimate” the impact of income on overall happiness. 

In short, affluence — a fairly common way to measure “success” — is a terrible predictor of happiness. Financial success, past a certain point, won’t make you happier.

But maintaining even a few close friendships will. Research shows  doubling your number of friends is like increasing your income by 50 percent in terms of how happy you feel.

So can helping other people. Research shows giving can be more beneficial for the giver than the receiver.

So can engaging in active or social forms of leisure. Research shows working out, connecting with family or friends, or pursuing an interest are much more likely to increase levels of happiness compared to passive “activities” like vegging out or staring at your phone.

When you get a little free time, don’t think “chilling.” Think “fulfilling.”

Because when you take positive steps to feel happier, you can actually be happier.

Making the resulting success you may experience the icing on an already awesome cake.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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