Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Psychology of Success

Decades of research shows that success is not we often think it is.

Key points

  • There has been considerable research into the psychology of success over the years.
  • Americans tend to define success in outer-directed terms rather than inner-directed ones.
  • Psychologists have advised applying inner-directed measures of success to realize feelings of well-being.

While success is primarily defined as the “achievement of intention,” a secondary definition for the term is the “attainment of fame, wealth, or power,” a clue to how Americans have largely (mis)interpreted the concept. Outer-directed measures of success have generally served as the means to determine how successful an individual is or isn’t, a practice that has worked to the disadvantage of many of us over the years. Most of us are not famous, wealthy, or powerful, after all, and even if one does qualify on any of those dimensions, there are always other people who possess greater quantities of one or more.

This model of success has made a good number of Americans feel less successful than they would otherwise feel if more inner-directed measures were used, I believe, and something that has led to much emotional insecurity and psychological angst. We have, for the most part, been using the wrong kind of social currency to gauge or assess success, in other words, a contributing factor in our unimpressive national levels of happiness and well-being. In short, success in America has largely been a failure, I maintain—a curious thing given how much significance we assign to the pursuit of it.

There has been a long history of investigating the psychology of success in America that supports such a view. In 1906, Harvard psychologist William James labeled Americans’ unbridled ambition as “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success” and “our national disease.” Almost a half-century later, Lawrence Kubie, one of the country’s leading psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, asserted that many outwardly successful people suffered from unconscious neurotic forces. “External success is not an infallible indication of internal health,” he told a group of medical professionals at the University of Rochester in 1949; his clinical experience showed that realizing one’s professional goals frequently led not to contentment but rather depression.

Few people on the planet knew more about the psychology of success in the early 1960s than David C. McClelland, chairman of Harvard’s Department of Social Relations and head of that university’s Center for Research in Personality. Making money was part of the reason to want to succeed, but there was more to it, he had found. Americans “enjoyed the sense of challenge and risk and overcoming obstacles and getting somewhere,” McClelland explained in 1963, with setting achievable goals as the key to success.

A quarter century later, Steven Berglas had become a leading authority on the psychology of success, particularly its less savory aspects. The Harvard Medical School psychologist specialized in what he called “success-induced disorders” and was the author of The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You Reach the Top. For Berglas, success could be a “syndrome,” a pattern of behavior activated by the usually unacknowledged strains of accomplishment. There were “victims” of success, he maintained after treating many professionals who had crashed and burned after having “made it.” Within psychiatric circles, there was now even a name for what Berglas and other shrinks were seeing: “self-defeating personality disorder.”

After seeing more of their workaholic patients begin to question their priorities in life in the 1990s, more psychologists took a closer look at success and its relationship with mental health. One of them was Stan J. Katz, a Beverly Hills-based clinical and forensic psychologist, who had a keen read on the fluctuating narrative of success in America. In his private practice, Katz saw more than his fair share of high achievers who rarely had time to enjoy the things for which they worked so hard. “With our passage into the 1990s,” he and Aimee E. Liu wrote in Psychology Today in 1992, “we seemed to hit the hollow ground between achieving success and feeling successful,” the distinction an important one.

Psychologist Gilbert Brim said much the same thing in his 1992 Ambition: How We Manage Success and Failure Throughout Our Lives. Success was not an objective measure but a subjective one, the director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Mid-Life Development argued in the book, and was thus something that should be reevaluated on an ongoing basis. Life changed as one aged, after all, meaning success at one point did not guarantee it at another. In fact, it was keeping the same metrics of success over time that often led to boredom or the feeling of failure as one reached one’s full potential in a particular field, he pointed out.

What Abby Ellin called in Psychology Today in 2010 “contender syndrome” was without question an unwelcome presence related to the psychology of success. The sense that one hadn’t lived up to one’s full potential was a disturbing sensation for many, especially when comparing one’s list of achievements to those of others. Ellin reported that therapists were seeing more people suffering from the condition (that referred to Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy’s iconic line “I coulda been a contender” in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront), a result perhaps of the comparative nature of social media.

Most recently, the idea that failure is a good thing has entered the realm of the psychology of success. Some psychologists, career coaches, and consultants have labeled this concept “failing forward,” putting a positive spin on a personal or professional reversal. One can learn a lot more from failure than success, this thinking goes, a comforting thought to all of us who have not realized the level of success that we had hoped to.


Samuel, Lawrence R. (2020). The Failure of Success: Americans' Ambiguous History of Ambition. Cambridge, UK; Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

More from Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today