For most of my life, I thought success lead to happiness. If I could just get the right grades, run the right times, achieve the right things, get accepted by the right people… I’d be successful, and I’d be happy. But the more I try to chase this thing called “success” by doing all the right things, the more I realize that it’s not producing the happiness I thought it would.
I’ve been running after quantitative things. Test scores, race times, number of friends, the list goes on… and I know I’m not the only one. When you ask young kids what they want to be when they grow up, you get all the money-making answers: surgeon, lawyer, and of course, an anesthesiologist. But how many of those kids that dream of being an anesthesiologist actually like science? How many of the kids that want to own a business actually care about what impact their business will have more than they care about the amount of money it will produce?
As I keep chasing after success in order to find my happiness, I’ve come to realize that my formula needs to be flipped around.
Success = Happiness
Happiness = Success
Shawn Achor, best-selling author and lecturer at Harvard University, says in his TED Talk that “90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world but by the way your brain process the world.”
So, what does this mean?
For me, it made me realize that my formula for happiness could not be based on my success. Whatever was going on in my external world had a very minimal impact on how joyful I felt in the long-run. Instead, what matters is how I perceived what was going on around me. In my blog post Get Rid of Anxiety and Find Peace by Doing This Simple Technique, I talked about how the second-ranked student at MIT could say they aren’t smart if they are comparing themselves to the first-ranked student, but every other student in the nation probably thinks that second-ranked student is pretty smart.
This is a difference in perception, which can create a drastic difference in happiness. You could either be upset that you aren’t the first-ranked student and spiral into negative self-talk, or you can be grateful that you are ranked so high at a prestigious school, be grateful that you got into MIT in the first place, and look forward to the present challenge of working your way to becoming the first-ranked student.
These two different mindsets can make you physically feel a dramatic difference. When you think about being grateful and looking to challenges with excitement, you feel lighter, happier, and more capable. On the other hand, when you keep knocking yourself down, your inner world starts to darken.
Because here’s the thing: if you only allow yourself to be happy when you achieve success, you’ll never feel happy.
It’s always going to be slightly out of grasp. The mindset of “success first, happiness second” never gives you the chance to recognize your accomplishments or give yourself a pat on the back. It’s always…
What can I do more?
What can I do better?
What can I do to achieve success?
And don’t get me wrong, these are good questions. But just like how trying to jam your face into a bunch of roses isn’t going to allow you to smell them any better, trying to force your way to success isn’t going to get you any closer. The best way to accomplish the success you want is: step back, look at the beauty of the flowers around you, and take it all in.
I know this from experience because for the past couple years I have constantly asked myself these questions. And like I said, I don’t think they are inherently bad. They are great ways to put yourself on the right path. But, the problem was that I wasn’t allowing myself to soak in any of my accomplishments or appreciate any of my feats.
If you’re uber-focused on achieving success, running a marathon won’t be enough because running two is more impressive. Getting a promotion is cool and all, but you will only feel successful when you’re the CEO. Your six days of dieting is worth nothing because of the one cheat day you had.
Success is always just one more step away, and if happiness comes after success, then mathematically speaking: you’re always two steps away from being happy.
Okay, so I’ve made my case for why the formula Success = Happiness doesn’t seem work. But, if you’re anything like me, you’re reading this and you’re like: “I get what you’re saying. But how can I be sure I’ll achieve success if I start focusing on happiness first?”
That’s a great question, and it was one that I was determined to find the answer to. Because, after all, if I’m going to totally change my way of thinking, I better have some science to back it up.
One of the points Shawn Achor brought up was that in one of his studies he found that 75% of job successes were determined by factors associated with happiness, such as optimism levels, social support, and ability to see stress as a challenge instead of the treat. Only 25% were determined by intelligence factors.
He also concluded from his research that the brain performs significantly better when it is in a positive state, compared to when it is neutral or negative.
And I’ve seen this first-hand as I’ve become aware of the patterns in my training journal. In November, I started keeping a journal to log my track and field training, and it’s been one of the best decisions EVER. Not only can I monitor trends, but it’s a great way to remind myself of the work I put in and write my thoughts down.
This journal has allowed me to see that 10 times out of 10, my best workouts are the ones when I am focused on the process, I am grateful, and I am happy. The ones where I am trying to force myself to hit goal times or I am stressing about doing the right thing tend to be, well, not my best.
And I’m not the only one. I remember an athlete with similar scenarios from the book How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald.1 Her name is Siri Lindley, and she is an ITU Triathlon World Champion. When she was 24, she set the crazy goal of qualifying for the Olympics in the triathlon. She had previously not ran farther than a mile, swam competitively, or owned a bike… but she had a dream, work ethic, and belief that she could make it, and that was enough to get her started.
She improved tremendously and a couple short years after setting her initial goal she won the U.S. pro national championship, finished third in the age-group triathlon world championships, and officially turned professional. In 1999, one year away from the Sydney Olympics, she decided to move to Australia to completely engulf herself in her training and put herself in the environment that she’d compete in. She wanted no distractions. She wanted success.
However, this inflexible approach ended up hurting her in the long run.
She was so focused on being successful and then happy, that she was quickly sucking all the fun out of her journey. At her last attempt to qualify for the Olympics she did not properly hydrate herself and ended up just barely finishing the race without collapsing. Her Olympic dreams were crushed.
In some ways, it was though as if I was trying to dehumanize my very human nature. Trying to become impervious to pain, warmth, love, and flattery.
Desperate to find some way to achieve the success she was chasing after, she tried working with a new coach. The first couple workouts were harder than anything she had ever imagined, and it left her feeling terrified. The coach noticed her struggling, and took her aside one day and asked her what her goals were.
As she listed them off – win a world championship medal, win another U.S. race, win a World Cup race, etc… – her body became increasingly rigid, and the coach picked up on it.
He said, “You know what, Siri? Forget about all that. Starting today, you’re retired. The way you look at this sport and the pressure you put on yourself are just all wrong. You started doing triathlon because you loved it. Let’s go back to that. Let’s just see how fit, how fast, and how strong Siri Lindley can be – and have fun doing it.”
When I first read this, I felt like my eyes had been opened for the first time. I finally realized that the way to success didn’t need to be a forced, exhausted route. I could enjoy it.
Siri realized this, too, and it worked. With her new mindset, she quickly won a World Cup race in Switzerland, beating the 2000 Olympic Triathlon gold medalist. She followed that up by winning a World Cup race in Cancun. In 2001, she won the World Triathlon Championships.
And the reason she won it, oddly enough, is because she finally didn’t need to.
It’s not that Siri needed to bear the title of world champion to love herself; she had already transformed into the person she wanted to be through her total commitment to a dream. Paradoxically, it may seem, Siri had to leg of that dream and find contentment in the moment-to-moment process of chasing it in order to complete the personal transformation that was her deeper ambition, and yet it was this very act of letting go that enabled her to fufill the outward dream.
You might be able to find success without being happy, but it would be a very slow and stressful process. For the longest time, I’ve had an interesting relationship with stress. I didn’t find it scary, instead, I found it enjoyable in an odd sort of way. I thought stress was an integral part of the formula for success. After all, our culture has glorified people who pull all-nighters to finish projects, chug coffee because they always have to go-go-go, and become less human and more like the energizer bunny.
So, naturally, I thought this was a good thing. Stressing about things meant I was doing something right, right?
Well, maybe not.
I think stress is still somewhat necessary in our lives, but what needs to change is how we assess it and handle it. Stress can be a powerful motivator – without stress, you wouldn’t care what your grades were and you wouldn’t feel compelled to work towards getting a promotion. It makes you alert.
But the problem is when stress leads to anxiety. So, here’s the mindset I have chosen to adopt:
I don’t mind stress. I know I can handle it. I won’t let it affect me.
This attitude still allows me to keep stress in my life as a motivator, but it takes away all the feelings it brings with. Once I eliminate the worry and anxiety of the task at hand, I am able to pursue it with an open mind and a cheerful heart. On the other hand, if I’m so caught up in being “successful”, stress will amplify because I will be worried about everything little thing that could possibly be a roadblock in my path to success.
When I focus on being joyful about my process, I allow the journey to be flexible. If something comes up, I am able to adjust.
So, here’s the bottom line: find happiness in your journey, instead of muscling your way towards success with gritted teeth. Let go out of outcomes, and start focusing on the process. Look towards challenges as ways to grow, instead of hindrances.
You’ll find that things to start to work out, and as an added bonus, your life lights up. 🙂
Quick Note: I had so much fun writing and researching for this blog post that you should expect to see lots of posts in the future about happiness. I think it’s such an important topic and it’s something I’m super interested in, too. Stay tuned for more!
2. TED Talk by Shawn Achor: