Why Success Won’t Make You Happy.

August 20, 2020

Why Success Won’t Make You Happy.

May 29, 2023

I wish this book already existed, but Arthur Brooks is in the midst of writing it. I did a Q&A with Arthur a couple months ago and his column in The Atlantic called “How to Build a Life” is profound. A few weeks ago, when he sent me one of his most recent columns entitled “‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy,” I cowered. Has he been stalking me?

If wisdom is about distilling what’s essential, Arthur has given us the gift of understanding the premise of his upcoming book before it’s on bookshelves. Here are some of my favorite passages from this potent article.

  • Imagine reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Booze.” You would likely expect a depressing story about a person in a downward alcoholic spiral. Now imagine instead reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Success.” That would be an inspiring story, wouldn’t it? Maybe—but maybe not. It might well be the story of someone whose never-ending quest for more and more success leaves them perpetually unsatisfied and incapable of happiness.
  • Though it isn’t a conventional medical addiction, for many people success has addictive properties. To a certain extent, I mean that literally—praise stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is implicated in all addictive behaviors. (This is basically how social media keeps people hooked: Users get a dopamine hit from the “likes” generated by a post, keeping them coming back again and again, hour after miserable hour.)
  • But success also resembles addiction in its effect on human relationships. People sacrifice their links with others for their true love, success. They travel for business on anniversaries; they miss Little League games and recitals while working long hours. Some forgo marriage for their careers—earning the appellation of being “married to their work”—even though a good relationship is more satisfying than any job.
  • The desire for success may be inherent to human nature. The great American psychologist William James once noted, “We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind.” And success makes us attractive to others (that is, until we ruin our marriages).
  • But specialness doesn’t come cheap. Apart from some reality-TV stars and other accidental celebrities, success is brutal work, and it requires sacrifices. In the 1980s, the physician Robert Goldman famously found that more than half of aspiring athletes would be willing to take a drug that would kill them in five years in exchange for winning every competition they entered today, “from the Olympic decathlon to the Mr. Universe.” Later research found that up to 14 percent of elite performers would accept a fatal cardiovascular condition in exchange for an Olympic gold medal—still a shockingly high number, in my estimation.
  • Success addicts giving up their habit experience a kind of withdrawal as well. Research finds that depression and anxiety are common among elite athletes after their careers end; Olympic athletes, in particular, suffer from the “post-Olympic blues.” I saw this withdrawal all the time in my years as the president of a think tank in Washington, D.C. Prominent people in politics and media would step back from the limelight—sometimes of their own volition, sometimes not—and suffer mightily. They talked of virtually nothing but the old days. Many suffered from depression and anxiety.
  • American culture valorizes overwork, which makes it easy to slip into a mindset that can breed success addiction. But if you’ve seen yourself in my description, don’t lose hope. There is plenty you can do to retrain yourself to chase happiness instead of success, no matter where you are in your life’s journey. Let me suggest that you consider three steps, whether you are at the peak of your career, trying to work your way up the ladder, or looking at success in the rearview mirror.
  • The first step is an admission that as successful as you are, were, or hope to be in your life and work, you are not going to find true happiness on the hedonic treadmill of your professional life. You’ll find it in things that are deeply ordinary: enjoying a walk or a conversation with a loved one, instead of working that extra hour, for example. This is extremely difficult for many people. It feels almost like an admission of defeat for those who have spent their lives worshipping hard work and striving to outperform others. Social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success, but the research is clear that it strips us of life satisfaction.
  • The second step is to make amends for any relationships you’ve compromised in the name of success. This is complicated, obviously. “Sorry about choosing tedious board meetings—which I don’t even remember now—over your ballet recitals” probably won’t get the job done. More effective is simply to start showing up. With relationships, actions speak louder than words, especially if your words have been fairly empty in the past.
  • The last step is to find the right metrics of success. In business, people often say, “You are what you measure.” If you measure yourself only by the worldly rewards of money, power, and prestige, you’ll spend your life running on the hedonic treadmill and comparing yourself to others. I suggested better metrics in the inaugural “How to Build a Life” column, among them faith, family, and friendship. I also included work—but not work for the sake of outward achievement. Rather, it should be work that serves others and gives you a sense of personal meaning.

Arthur is my guru and virtual therapist. And, someday in the not-too-distant future, hopefully, he’ll be an MEA guest faculty member.

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