Which Comes First, Success or Happiness?

One of my favorite coaching clients recently told me a story.  She said that her brother went into a florist and while checking out, spotted a framed Master’s or Doctorate diploma in Engineering on the wall. He asked the store owner why the diploma was there. The man said, “To remind me why I am a florist.”  My client went on to say, ” while it’s great to succeed, make sure you’re succeeding because you’re doing what you want, not succeeding despite what you want to do.”

My experience is that unhappy people can’t experience their success.  Others can look at their accomplishments and think, “Wow, that person is really successful.”  S/he is an Executive VP or a CEO or a millionaire or a business owner.  Those are the hallmarks of success, right?  If you talk to people with these credentials, however, you’ll sometimes find that not only do they not see their success, they are driven to hit the next goal, and the next one, and frequently you’ll find that they are not happy.  For folks who have not hit these marks yet, and strive for them, that seems incredible–how can they not be happy if they have . . .?”

There are several reasons these folks aren’t happy.  Sometimes, to my client’s point, we’re working toward someone else’s success.  We’re doing what we think we should, or our parents wanted us to, or because we believe that it is the only way to pay our kids through college.  For some people, there is a lot more happiness in striving than in achieving.  That’s true in part, because we think there is a magic in achieving and everything will fall into place once the goal is achieved. When the magic doesn’t happen instantly, then there is a tremendous disappointment and disillusionment.  Some folks don’t believe deep down inside that they deserve success (or happiness, for that matter) and they never see that they’ve achieved it.

Look at it the other way, though.  Are happy people successful?  I’d have to say, yes, in my experience they usually are.  There are several situations that are work related that can contribute to your happiness.  First, if you are working at your “calling,” then it gives your life and work meaning.  Second, if you are challenged and building your skills, that usually creates happiness.  Third, if you can see that you’re making a difference, then that usually contributes to happiness.  Happiness is less about the end state (success by some people’s definitions) and more about what is happening now.  If you like what is happening now, however, you are usually focused on it and delivering at a high level, and that leads to success.

So, are successful people happy?  Sometimes.  Are happy people successful?  Usually.  Happy people’s success is usually self defined, though, rather than “other” defined.  Others usually agree, though.    Seems to me, then, that it would be more productive to work on being happy, rather than being successful, because you’re more likely to get two for the price of one.

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Filed under Career Development, Career Goals, Executive Development

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