Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Power Makes People Happy

Power allows you to live your life authentically, which makes you happy.

There is a popular image that people who are in positions of power are really unfulfilled.  Perhaps they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.  Perhaps being able to choose to do what you want carries a psychological cost.  Or, perhaps this belief is just wishful thinking on the part of people who do not have power in their lives.  Maybe, those people who have the power to do what they want in life really are more satisfied than those who don’t.

 This question was explored in a paper in the March, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Yona Kifer, Daniel Heller, Wei Qi Elaine Perunovic, and Adam Galinsky. 

 These researchers suggested that having power provides people with the ability to do what they want to do in life.  That opportunity creates a feeling of authenticity in life.  That is, powerful people can act like themselves rather than having to act as others would like them to be.  This authenticity should make powerful people happy.

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 This proposal was tested in two ways.

 First, the researchers gave a series of surveys to a few hundred Israeli adults.  These surveys measured people’s satisfaction with their work, romantic relationships, and friendships.  The surveys also explored how much power people felt they had in each of these situations.  In addition, a series of questions asked about whether people felt like they could act authentically in their work, romantic, and friendship lives.  The researchers also measured a number of variables that might also predict life satisfaction like extraversion, neuroticism, and overall well-being. 

 In each of these roles, people were more satisfied with that aspect of their lives when they felt that they had power to control that aspect of their lives than when they did not.  So, people’s work life was better if they were in a position of power than if they were not.  People felt better about their romantic relationships when they felt like they had some control in the relationship.  People enjoyed their friendships more if they had some power within their group of friends. 

 The best predictor of this relationship between power and satisfaction was authenticity.  That is, these surveys suggested that power increased people’s satisfaction with life because it enabled people to act they way they wanted to in those situations. 

 The researchers then used a more experimental approach to address the same question.  In one study, participants were asked to think either about situations in which they had power or in which they had no power.  After this priming task, people rated how authentically they can act in life as well as their overall feelings of happiness.  People who thought about having power in their lives rated themselves as being able to live more authentically than people who thought about being powerless.  The people who thought about having power also gave higher ratings of overall happiness than those who thought about having no power.

 One final study asked a group of people to think about situations in their lives in which they were able to be true to themselves (that is, to be authentic) or situations in which they had to be inauthentic.  In this study, people who thought about situations in which they were authentic rated themselves as happier than those who thought about situations in which they were inauthentic.

 Putting all this together, then, these studies suggest that if you are in a position of power, then it enables you to live your life on your own terms.  And that authenticity creates a general sense of well-being.

 So, power does make people happy.

 There is one thing to watch out for in all of this, though.  While having power can make you happier, seeking power does not make you happier.  There is quite a bit of evidence that people who spend their lives seeking power do not focus on the intrinsic joy of life.  So, people who seek power are actually less happy than those who do not. 

 Is there a way out of this paradox?  That is, can you have power without seeking it?

 One way to become powerful is to try to focus on attaining power.  This kind of scheming may succeed, but it is likely to make you unhappy.

 A second way to become powerful is to spend your life getting things done.  In a work setting, that means focusing on the contribution you can make to your organization (and making sure that people above you in the organization recognize your achievements).  In your social life that means doing things for the people around you.  When you are effective in the things you do, people often recognize that.  In addition, getting things done makes you happy. 

 If you consistently do things in your life that help you and others achieve goals, then your journey is a happy one.  And over time, you will find that you rise to a position of power within your network.  And that makes you happy as well.

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 Check out my books Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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