Are Successful People Happy or are Happy People Successful?

Table of Contents
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Quick Takes:

  • People think that success equals happiness
  • However, it's happiness that normally makes someone successful
  • It's hard, nearly impossible, however, to be both happy and successful
  • Success is the attainment of a feeling, and happiness is a feeling, which means we can achieve both
  • Make sure your definition of success aligns with your desire to be happy

“If you want to be successful, surround yourself with people who are more successful than you. If you want to be happy, surround yourself with people who are less successful than you.” - Naval Ravikant

Sigh, another article on what it means to be happy? Bear with me. When it comes down to it, happiness is the ultimate driver of our lives. The overarching purpose of our actions. It makes sense, then, that it’s a point of discussion constantly on peoples' minds. See, it’s not me, it’s you. Well, actually, it’s us.

Leading thinkers believe that happiness equals success, and that it’s up to the individual to define success. But defining success is just the beginning of our happiness problems.

A lot of our collective existential angst stems from our inability to efficiently achieve our desired successes. We live in a now society. If we aren’t as successful now as we imagine ourselves becoming in the future, it causes a lot of stress. Such a high mountain still left to climb! And if we’re stressed and worried about the future, well, that won’t do very well to making us happy.

The paradox goes even deeper. For success-minded people, there is rarely a level of success that’s fully satisfying. We (yes, I’m success-minded too) place a lot of eggs in the proverbial basket of our goals, and then when we achieve a goal, we don’t feel the happiness and satisfaction we’d hoped. Instead of contentment we feel unrest. What’s next? we think, without stopping to appreciate how far we’ve come.

Success Might Only Equal Success

It’s true that if you want to be successful, you should surround yourself with people who are more successful than you. More drive, at least. Remember, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. But if the pursuit of success causes unrest and a lack of focus on the present, wouldn’t you be surrounding yourself with equally unhappy people?

It begins to get esoteric, but what does success really mean? We spend a lot of time trying to define happiness, believing that we understand what it means to be successful. Well, sure, that’s because success is easy to comprehend. It’s money or fame or notoriety in a field. blah blah blah.

Those things are all great, and are definitely something we should strive for, but they aren’t what success is. They don’t define success. Instead, they’re the physical manifestation of what it truly means to be successful: a feeling. 

Let’s call a spade a spade. Success is a feeling. It’s not a car, it’s not a big bank account, it’s not a reality TV show. However, if you feel good while doing any one of those things, well, then I’d say you’re successful. See where we’re going with this?

There’s an underlying reason why you’re pursuing a physical representation of success. Sure, a sports car might make you feel successful, but let’s go deeper. What’s that feeling? Acceptance, maybe. Recognition by your peers, perhaps. The adrenaline rush from driving fast. See, the car is a trophy of success in modern society, but it in-itself doesn’t make someone successful. It’s the  fulfillment of desire through the generation of an internal feeling.

Let's take an altruistic desire for success. Say that your view of success is massive impact. Inspiring millions through positive messages, to you, is the manifestation of success. Think about how good it would feel to do something like that! There you are, on a stage at a TED event, speaking to people who’re avid followers of your podcast and blog. At the end of your speech, the crowd erupts. Applause follows you off the stage as you realize you might have just changed the lives of thousands.

Your heart must be pulsing. Joy rising from your gut. How good does that feel? Ah, a feeling.

Altruism doesn’t have to be on a massive scale. Perhaps you seek to affect the lives of others through one-on-one coaching. To you, success is helping people on an intimate level, one by one. You gain a little notoriety within the coaching circle and you start coaching more high impact clients. Then, one day, one of your clients achieves her manifestation of success. Let’s say she takes a company public.

Your heart must be singing. Elation for her success is all around you. How good you must feel! Ah...

Happiness is Your Greatest Accomplishment

If success is a feeling, and happiness is a feeling, it makes sense that success would equal happiness. But actually, happiness equals success, and not the other way around. No transitive property here, sorry.

We spend our lives chasing goals, only to find that the real goal, the reason for our existence as a (semi) sentient being, is happiness. We set lofty goals because there’s a void in our lives to be filled. We feel a lack of fulfillment when we aren’t striving to do great things, but in reality, that unfulfilled feeling is because we aren’t happy, not because we aren’t successful.

Not happy in the moment, I s’pose. Life, like anything in the world, is cyclical. Just because we feel unfulfilled doesn’t mean we don’t have happy moments. In fact, those happy moments are the key to our success. What moments make you happy? Whatever's happening in that moment is what will make you successful, too.

Community is a big thing for me. Social interactions with interesting people fires me up. When I leave a conversation after a true connection, I can’t tell you how happy and alive I feel. The moment is fleeting, as all moments are, but the fact remains: I’m happiest when I’m sharing ideas with people.

However, in the traditional understanding of success, I believe that for me, it comes in the form of entrepreneurship. But hold on, wait just a minute! Isn’t it possible to focus on my happiness in such a way that it increases my success? If I love to connect with people, and entrepreneurship, to an extent, is all about connecting and storytelling, I should be able to achieve happiness as an entrepreneur.

The form of my happiness tells me something about the form of my success in business. Ultimately, it needs to be through a company that promotes some sort of social good. Or maybe I view the process of building a business as a learning experience specifically so I can one day help other awesome people build companies of their own.

Even more proof, my other success goal is to become a published author. How impressed everyone will be with my achievement! But, of course, it isn’t the act of being published itself that will make me happy, and isn’t my motivating factor. Again, I love community. I enjoy sparking new ideas and having new ideas of my own sparked. Connection is my motivation. So, if I ever do become a traditionally published author, I know I’ll be happy, not because people will think I’m successful, or because I'll become rich, but because a distributed network of people are hearing my message, and hopefully, saying something back.

Regardless, the goal(s) that will make you successful needs to be driven by your happiness, and not the other way around. It’ll sound cliche, and I cringe to even type it, but if you follow your happiness, success will follow. If you follow success first, and don’t work to align your success with your happiness, well, chances are you’ll end up less happy than before.

Fine, Eat Your Cake Too

But this means there’s hope! If happiness equals success, it means we can be both happy and successful. If, of course, we prioritize one over the other.

However, prioritizing happiness over success doesn’t mean we should be any less motivated. We have only one life to live and we sure as hell better maximize that time. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to be an influential author or a leading businessman. I just know that becoming an author or businessman won’t make me happy on their own.

Instead, I view writing and entrepreneurship as vehicles that let me bring my happiness forward, meaning I have no choice but to become successful in both arenas. My happiness depends on it. But really it doesn’t. We should be working every day on being happy in our current life situation. Yet that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to expand the reach of our happiness through traditional success. I nuanced point, I known, but true nonetheless.

The bottom line is that there’s an underlying reason why you want the type of success you do. When you achieve that success, it isn’t the goal itself that makes you happy, its the fulfillment of your happiness through the attainment of the goal that does. So, it’s totally possible to become happy and successful. Just make sure that your definition of success aligns with your feeling of happiness.

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