Will Success Make You Happy?

A veteran’s view of stress from Yale.

Posted Apr 10, 2017

bottled_void/Flickr
Source: bottled_void/Flickr

What’s so great about success? Ultimately, we think it will lead to happiness. Many of us think we have to sacrifice our happiness now to be successful and become even happier later. 

Never Stop Accomplishing

Why is stress so common in environments where people want to be successful? Dr. Emma Seppälä of Stanford University discusses this in her book, The Happiness Track. One flawed approach to success she describes is, “Never Stop Accomplishing.” The idea is to “Stay continuously focused on getting things done. To achieve more and stay competitive, you’ve got to move quickly from one to-do to another, always keeping an eye on what’s next.”

This rapid-fire approach to accomplishing goals reflects my experience in the Air Force. In the military, success often meant stretching ourselves to our limits. Budget cuts, sequestration, and the reduction in personnel led to more hours at work and more stress at home.

khehe/Flickr
Source: khehe/Flickr

Stressful Similarities

To the surprise of some of my military colleagues, stress as a student at Yale is not so different from military life. Of course, there are fewer physical risks. But the expectations and pressure people place on themselves are similarly burdensome.

Success hinges on how much people have on their plate and how close people feel to being burned out. There is an ideal amount of stress, which teeters right before burnout. Any less, and people feel as though they aren’t doing enough. Any more, and people crash.

When people greet each other at Yale, discussion of overwhelming commitments emerges. Older people often say they wish they had gotten more involved when they were in college.

In contrast, peers have told me if they were freshmen again, they would have gotten less involved. This is because of the stress involved with over-commitment. Thriving in this stressful environment requires resilience.

Problems With Resilience

Still, some cast a critical eye toward resilience. There are humanistic psychologists who say we should be skeptical. For them, resilience in isolation from character strengths is perilous. If resilience is simply procedural, then it can lead to disagreeable outcomes.

For example, resilience can enhance people's ability to perform horrific acts. They may experience trauma, but resilience training can help them overcome their distress. Thus, for the humanistic psychologists, resilience should be tempered with a moral view. Resilience alone is not a positive trait. It must be used toward a positive goal.

Goals are Holding You Back

A theory of success I have recently adopted involves applying a system rather than accomplishing goals. A system involves good decisions that maximize odds for success.

This idea comes from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic. Recently, he wrote a bestselling book titled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. For Adams, a goal is a specific objective one either achieves or doesn’t achieve. A system is something one does on a regular basis that increases odds of success in the long term.

Take the goal of weight loss. For Adams, a better approach is to change one’s way of thinking about food choices and create a system that leads to healthier decisions. You shouldn't judge any specific decision based on its outcome, but rather by the process that led to it. Of course, if enough decisions lead to bad outcomes, that may point to a problem with your system.

This system leads to a reinforcement of positive feelings. Part of Adams' system means improving and maintaining physical and mental health. This leads to greater success, which boosts positive feelings.

Broaden and Build

Research supports the systems approach. Take the broaden hypothesis. The idea is having more positive emotions boosts the variety of your thoughts and expands your openness. An expansion of thoughts and openness leads to more success. Experiments have demonstrated that positive emotions contribute to inclusion, creativity, and efficiency.

For many people, overwhelming stress attends striving for success. It doesn’t have to be this way. Flawed approaches to success lead to burnout. For me, using a system rather than a checklist of goals has led to better outcomes. It is time to put the myth of stressful success aside.

You can follow me on Twitter here: @robkhenderson.

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