Success, or the Paradox of Happiness

Is success an idea that menaces us, preventing us from taking care of ourselves?

Posted Oct 24, 2018

You succeeded, so you must be happy, right?

It is somewhat curious to think how we arrived at considering happiness as a byproduct of success. Even such disparate groups as my clients and my students have come to the same conclusion: that successful people must be happy because they reached what they wanted in life—money, power, social status, public acknowledgment.

This means that since happiness seems a reasonable goal to pursue, my students and clients tend to imitate those models to chase that success.

My suspicion is that this attitude leads to the opposite result, especially if we do not define the word happiness precisely but rather define it only by its means. So let us start there with the word itself.

The origin of the word

Originally, the word success didn't start with happy connotations. From Latin, the word ‘success’ comes from the verb sub-cedere, indicating something that falls upon you.

The verb cedere (moving forward), which is related to the verb cadere (falling, happening), indicates mainly a movement that covers what is underneath (sub). Hence, etymologically speaking, success is the outcome generated by this movement which could have the related consequence of abruptly dropping something on your head.

Thus, the word success began with an indicated neutral outcome. It encompassed anything that happened to you, both good and bad.

Today, the word generally has only a positive connotation because it takes for granted that you actively pursued an outcome knowing what you were doing, like a pool player lining up a difficult shot and sinking the correct ball. How often does that happen for any of us?

Defending both sides of the word

Since the word has both a positive and neutral meaning, I generally encourage my interlocutors to value both senses of success in order to gain a little more freedom from these fake burdensome expectations reinforced by a society whose vast majority struggle with feelings of success.

I have noticed in my time as a teacher and counselor that being successful can make us feel as miserable as being unsuccessful because in reaching the goal, we stress on external expectations that might taint tangible success. The "anything to win" mentality might drive us to do things we do not like, such as lying, stealing, cheating, or stressing our body for no good reason.

For example, accepting a promotion at work for more money and more opportunities but with the possibility of added stress from more responsibilities could be considered a success that might make you feel obliged to be happy and grateful even while you might prefer to keep the contentment and satisfaction of your old job instead. Vice versa, receiving a bad grade at school might make you feel miserable although you were actually enjoying the work you were doing in preparation for the test, even if you ultimately didn’t meet the expectations of the teacher.

Adapting our vocabulary to once again include the neutral sense of success as an outcome would help us to focus on what makes us happy instead of leaving our happiness in the hands of social judgment and financial means.

The value of being misunderstood

"The value of being misunderstood" is the subtitle of the book Judged recently published by Ziyad Marar (2018). This book's value comes from clearly showing how always being successful might be a curse rather than the blessing we would normally associate with it. Having a good reputation actually has the ability to restrict freedom, preventing an exploration of what really matters to a person since success is often measured against social expectations.

The components of success are much more subtle. In a study, Susan Fiske (2006) showed how social recognition is influenced more by perceived warmth over competence. Reputation is based also on traits related to how we see people: such as friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, and trust rather than skill, ability, or efficacy. Hence, the moral qualities of someone are as important as their expected competence.

I cannot be a trustworthy person if I claim a skill that I don’t have. I cannot be a good leader if I don’t care about the people on my team.

I am pointing to this study because a success-oriented society like ours tends to accent competitiveness against integrity, efficacy versus care.

To prove this point, a Princeton-based team of researchers tested a group of students at a theological seminary (Darley, J. M. Batson, C. D., 1973). The students were given the task of reflecting and delivering a speech on the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. Along the way to the class, the researchers framed an encounter with a man slumped in the doorway in need of help. It turned out that even if their task was to reflect on what it means to help others, the students did not stop to help the man because they did not want to arrive late to class and risk a low grade on their assignment. Their focus on succeeding was so strong that they did not put into practice what the actual message of the assignment required.

Real success

For this reason, I come back to the questions: What is real success? Is it an idea that menaces us, preventing us from really taking care of ourselves and others? Or, is it our ability to know what we really want to achieve independently of the meanings that the society has pre-assigned to it?

Can we find success and happiness in failures? Honestly, I do think so.


Marar, Z. Judge, Bloomsbury, New York, 2018.

Fiske, S. Cuddy, A. J. C. Glick, P. 'Universal Dimension of Social Cognition: Warmth and Competence'  Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2006, 11, 2, 77-83.

Darley, J. M. Batson, C. D.  'From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27, 100-8.