It’s one of those life tips that I wish I could have given to my younger self. “Work hard to achieve your goals. You will then be happy.” Do not believe this lie.
The truth is this: “Be happy. Work smart. Then, you will achieve your goals.” Being happy should be the starting point, not the end result. It’s not too late to heed this advice.
Making a definitive statement about happiness is a bold move because it’s hard to prove these kinds of statements. However, I do have proof to back up my advice.
Success Does Not Define Happiness
The first person I read about that did a quantitative study on happiness was Dr. Daniel Gilbert, who is a psychology researcher from Harvard University and is the author of Stumbling on Happiness. The data from his research covered many types of situations, such as sports fans from winning and losing teams, people who recently lost their jobs, and people who were diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease.
The results from one of his studies was particularly interesting - he compared the level of happiness of lottery winners with the level of happiness of people who became paraplegic. After studying the data that measured the level of happiness among these people after one year, one would expect that the results would show how extreme the levels of happiness were between the two groups. What he found out was absolutely stunning: the level of happiness between the two groups were the same!
When it comes to severe life-altering events, the mind naturally dilutes the negative feelings over time and emotions eventually to come back to a normal range. Likewise, a similar effect also occurs with life-changing success - the happiness does not last in our minds as nearly as long as we would think. Success can provide temporary happiness, but success will not give long-term happiness.
Working Hard Does Not Define Productivity
Let me continue by talking about the notion of working hard. Those who have experienced working long hours know that spending more time working can actually decrease efficiency. However, I’m not here to tell you to work four-hours a week instead of 15 hours per day. I’m proposing to simply change the notion that hard work is the best work.
I want to help dispel the myth that working hard by exerting a lot of energy and willpower is needed to be productive. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a renowned psychologist who studied happiness, creativity, and productivity, and his work has generated a lot of interests from the world of business, sports, and education. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that optimal productivity is not reached when you work hard, but rather when you work effortlessly in a euphoric, effortless state called flow. Here is what Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has to say about happiness and productivity:
[…] evolution has built a safety device in our nervous system that allows us to experience full happiness only when we are living at 100% - when we are fully using the physical and mental equipment we have been given. This mechanism would ensure that after all our other needs were taken care of, we would still seek to use the full complement of our talents ….
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, from Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning
What Dr. Csikszentmihalyi is saying that when if use the full capacity of our mind and body, we can then reach the ultimate state of happiness. Working hard and exerting energy is contrary to the state of happiness that he describes. Working hard will not help you reach optimal productivity.
Re-learn What Happiness and Success Means
The last point ties it all together, and you can probably rely on your own instincts instead of research data to verify it. Happiness increases your likelihood of success. Happiness increases self-confidence and optimism. People want to be around happy people. A happy mood facilitates creativity. All these factors help improve the likelihood of success.
Although it might be self-evident, it doesn’t hurt to also look at research data that confirms what your instincts tell you. Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at UC Riverside, and her research is on determining how long-term happiness can be achieved. She recently published a book called The How of Happiness which describes some of the research findings on happiness.
One finding shows that rich people are not as happy as we think they would be. Here, rich is defined to be those earning more than $10 million per year. The results show that these people are only slightly happier than the office staff and the blue-collar workers that work for the rich people. Success does not guarantee happiness, but can happiness help improve success? Another study looked at college freshmen that had no wealth advantage, and the results showed that the freshmen who were happy in their first year had higher salaries when they reached their mid-thirties.
Strive for happiness first before trying to achieve success in your goals. Happiness helps us to work more productively. We don’t need success to be happy, but happiness increases our likelihood of success. Be happy. Work smart. Then, you will achieve your goals.
We can be inspired by the words of Sir Thomas Browne to have faith with our own happiness:
I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty into riches, adversity into prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.
- Sir Thomas Browne