Why Success Doesn’t Lead to Satisfaction (2023)


Many successful professionals struggle to enjoy their accomplishments. Our brains’ reward system, especially the neurotransmitter dopamine, drives us to achieve goals and rewards us with a great sense of pleasure when we do. But that pleasure is short lived, as our brains are hardwired to also seek balance from extreme emotional states. That leaves us with an empty longing to repeat whatever experience brought us that pleasure in the first place. This ostensibly addictive cycle throws our “enoughness” barometers completely out of whack, preventing us from being able to objectively gauge if what we’ve achieved is, in fact, satisfying. That’s why, although most of us intuitively know that happiness isn’t realized from the pursuit of money, status, or fame, we can’t stop ourselves from trying. If you really want lasting satisfaction in life, you’ll need to relearn your approach to finding it. The author presents several strategies.

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As 2022 came to a close, I was enjoying a year-end reflection session with an executive client, whom we’ll call Logan. As we looked back over his accomplishments for the year, he said something that utterly astonished me: “You know, I was almost happy.” Probing into what he could have possibly meant, he reflected that despite having met or exceeded nearly all his goals, he was obsessed with the one goal he fell short on (which, frankly, was inconsequential to his year’s runaway success). I thought we’d met to revel in the many fruits of his hard work. Instead, his ability to feel well-earned joy was hijacked by only partially achieving one of his goals.

Composing myself, I asked him, “So you’re telling me that had you completely achieved that one goal, you’d feel happy about all of it, but since you didn’t, you’re not happy about any of it?”

Even more telling, he replied, “What’s the point of being happy about failure?”

Logan is hardly alone in making a misguided correlation between success and happiness. Many successful professionals struggle to enjoy their accomplishments. For example, one study found that 72% of successful entrepreneurs suffer from depression or other mental health concerns. And CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the public at large. I confess that some of my uneasiness with Logan’s complaint was its unnerving familiarity. Satisfaction with my own professional achievements has often eluded me as I’ve made unhealthy comparisons to others’ achievements or focused more on what I didn’t achieve than what I did.

Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks has spent years researching our seemingly inescapable but foolish association between achievement, wealth, notoriety, and a lasting sense of satisfaction. He writes:

The insatiable goals to acquire more, succeed conspicuously, and be as attractive as possible lead us to objectify one another, and even ourselves. When people see themselves as little more than their attractive bodies, jobs, or bank accounts, it brings great suffering…You become a heartless taskmaster to yourself, seeing yourself as nothing more thanHomo economicus. Love and fun are sacrificed for another day of work, in search of a positive internal answer to the questionAm I successful yet?We become cardboard cutouts of real people.

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And when it comes to fueling our obsession with acquiring more money, expensive toys, professional successes, or prestige, we have help. Our brains’ reward system, especially the neurotransmitter dopamine, drives us to achieve goals and rewards us with a great sense of pleasure when we do. But that pleasure is short lived, as our brains are hardwired to also seek balance from extreme emotional states. That leaves us with an empty longing to repeat whatever experience brought us that pleasure in the first place. This ostensibly addictive cycle throws our “enoughness” barometers completely out of whack, preventing us from being able to objectively gauge if what we’ve achieved is, in fact, satisfying. That’s why, although most of us intuitively know that happiness isn’t realized from the pursuit of money, status, or fame, we can’t stop ourselves from trying.

Logan’s paradoxical response to his success opened my eyes to something profound. Dissatisfaction wasn’t an outcome — it was learned. His brain had been trained to anticipate and experience dissatisfaction based on faulty measures of enoughness. Logan began his year telling himself that he would be satisfied when he achieved or exceeded all his goals. By default, he defined dissatisfaction right from the start of the year as the absence of achieving or exceeding all his goals.

If dissatisfaction can be learned, then so too can satisfaction. Instead of treating satisfaction as a consequence of particular outcomes, leaving it to the whims of unhealthy correlations with things like wealth, status, or more trophies (I’ll be satisfied when…), we should treat it like a skill, a learned behavior (I’ll be satisfied because…). In essence, we need to see success and satisfaction as independent variables.

What if Logan had begun his year by telling himself, “I’ll be satisfied because I got to work on exciting projects with great people” or “I’ll be satisfied because I got a few opportunities to shine using my talents and created moments for others to shine using theirs.” Doing so treats satisfaction as a choice, not a capricious outcome. So if you really want lasting satisfaction in life, you’ll need to relearn your approach to finding it.

Recalibrating Your Enoughness Gauges

If you’re prone to dissatisfaction in moments when you expect to be satisfied, only to then double down on the same choices that made you dissatisfied in the first place, you must redefine your relationship with satisfaction. It’s especially important given the likely damaging impact your dissatisfaction is having on close relationships. Learning to be satisfied, then, must begin by dismantling your dissatisfaction apparatus. You must reformulate your enoughness gauges so that they collect and measure the right data. To start, identify which yardsticks are a struggle for you:

Reexamine your relationship with money.

If the pursuit of wealth has become your emblem of satisfaction, you’re in large company. According to one study, 79% of Americans believe they would be happier if they had more money. Yes, it’s true, there is some degree of satisfaction money can buy. But for the most part, social science has long proven that in the end, money itself won’t satisfy.

The deeper question to examine then is, “What meaning have I attached to having more money?” To some degree, we all have a complex relationship to money. When that relationship shifts from enabling our well-being to defining our worth, we’ve confused means with meaning.

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Here are some questions to get you started on redefining your relationship with money:

  • What do I believe about the role money plays in my well-being?
  • What triggers my anxiety about not having enough of it?
  • Do I compare my wealth to others (salaries, house size, material possessions) and feel dissatisfied when I think others have more?
  • In what ways does money cause me to feel guilt, shame, inadequacy, or self-importance?
  • How have I defined “enough” money?

Reexamine your relationship with achievement.

The feeling of reaching a hard-won goal is exhilarating. Promotions to bigger assignments. Publishing unique ideas. Inventing novel approaches. But how long does the exhilaration last? When you meet new people, are you privately eager for them to know about your successes?

When our track record of accomplishment defines us and reaching the next rung on whatever ladder we’re climbing consumes us, crowding out important relationships and the enjoyment of work and life, our relationship to achievement has become unhealthy. Here are some questions to get you started on redefining your relationship with achievement:

  • Do I neglect key relationships (spouse, kids, friends) in the pursuit of success?
  • Have I sacrificed my health (rest, diet, mental well-being) to achieve success?
  • Do I feel disillusioned or resentful when I fall short of a goal?
  • When is the last time I felt a sense of playfulness about my work, regardless of results, just for the sheer joy of doing it?
  • Do I compare my achievements to others, begrudging their successes as less earned than mine?
  • How have I defined “enough” achievement?

Reexamine your relationship with recognition and status.

Admiration from those we respect feels understandably gratifying. The esteem of others has a way of making us feel unique and prized. A prestigious social circle, far-reaching influence, and the accolades that come with success can be intoxicating. Social media has strapped a jetpack to this truth by providing the instant gratification of perceived fame and status. Followers, clicks, likes, and shares have become a dark currency that brokers prestige in an endless drip of fleeting notoriety.

But when our enjoyment of perceived importance degenerates to an insatiable craving for it, we’re in trouble. We resort to attention-seeking behaviors to keep the steady drip of admiration flowing. And in between doses, we question our inherent value, whether we’re really lovable beyond the image of ourselves we’ve created, and whether all the veneration is actually sincere. Here are some questions to get you started on redefining your relationship with recognition and status:

  • In what ways do I regularly seek out recognition from important people?
  • Do I spend excessive time monitoring my status on social media?
  • Do I resent it when others get recognition I feel I deserve more?
  • Do I privately question how much I’m loved, or doubt my inherent worth as a person?
  • Do I try to manipulate conversations (humble brags, name-drops, one-ups) to impress others and invite praise?
  • How have I defined “enough” recognition and status?

To be clear, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with money, achievement, or recognition. They can bring good things to our lives and those around us. But when our satisfaction depends on them, we’ve tarnished their good and turned them against ourselves. No matter how much money, achievement, or recognition we garner, the satisfaction they deliver will be short lived, keeping us on an unending “hedonic treadmill.”

Reconfigure Your Measurement Tools

The late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, author of How Will You Measure Your Life?, posed critical questions to his students as they graduated about how they could be sure their lives would yield true happiness. Unfortunately, most of today’s work world still encourages us to measure the very things that don’t. And while the last few years have certainly made a dent in shifting people’s values, we have a way to go before the rhetoric of self-care and living purposefully become the norm, putting us on healthy paths to lasting satisfaction.

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In the spirit of Christensen’s work, an important place to start is with measurement. Here are three shifts that can help you reconfigure how you measure satisfaction:

Shift from comparison to compassion.

Psychologists agree that social comparison as a measurement of success leads to sadness and emptiness. Our fixation on someone else’s last step prevents us from taking our own next step.

Rather than chiding yourself for what you haven’t achieved, or resenting someone for what they have, can you show yourself kindness for even incremental progress? And can you show your perceived rival compassion for whatever it took to achieve what they did? Instead of feeling or trying to entice envy through comparison, a more compassionate response is gratitude — for the privilege of doing the work you do, for the positive experiences you’ve had doing it, and even for the painful setbacks that have made you better.

Shift from counting to contribution.

Instead of perpetual scorekeeping (i.e., the hedonic treadmill), counting your money, trophies, or followers, take stock of where you’re making contributions. In whose life have you made a positive difference? For whom have you created opportunities to grow? These are the experiences the social sciences tell us lead to lasting joy. Instead of continuously moving the satisfaction line just out of reach, look for ways to make positive contributions to others, and enjoy taking inventory of those.

Shift from contempt to connection.

The addictive cycle of dopamine highs and withdrawal can leave us feeling bitter, anxious, and sad. And when we see our emotional contaminants harm others, we feel worse. The contempt toward ourselves — and others trying to care for us — leads to isolation and loneliness. Left alone in the company of unreliable voices in our heads, we can spiral, desperately scrambling to regain momentary satisfaction.

That’s when connection with others is precisely the antidote we need to feel satisfied. Rather than turning on yourself or pushing others away, have the courage to reach out and ask for help. Instead of stockpiling contempt, appreciate the family, colleagues, and friends you can turn to (and who turn to you) when life gets tough. They’re where lasting satisfaction awaits you.

. . .

If deep, lasting satisfaction is something you long for, and the hedonic treadmill is one you’re ready to get off, then relearn how to be satisfied. Like any new skill, it will take trial and error, hard work, and determination. Without question, the satisfaction learning curve can be steep. Our unhealthy enoughness narratives have a lifetime of perfecting behind them. And we live in a world that teaches us from our formative years to look for satisfaction in all the wrong places (to paraphrase the country music singer Johnny Lee). But that doesn’t leave us without choice.

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Logan and I agreed that we both needed to confront our unhealthy relationships with achievement and committed to supporting one another along the way. Specifically, we will focus on doing less — better and with joy — instead of doing more — better than others.

Close your eyes and think of a moment when you felt deep, genuine satisfaction: an everyday moment of joy with someone you care about or of making a difference for others. Wouldn’t many more moments of that kind of satisfaction be worth it?


Why success doesn t equal happiness? ›

Happiness is usually an attribute of an individual whereas success can be attributed to an individual or to a group. Happiness is a goal that many people aspire to. Most people also have a strong desire to be successful in life and they tend to believe that through this success they will automatically become happier.

Does success lead to happiness? ›

Many of us strive for success, putting long hours into our work or studies in the hopes of achieving success and, as a byproduct of that success, happiness. But a review of 225 studies in the Psychological Bulletin found that happiness doesn't necessarily follow success. In fact, it's just the opposite.

Why can't I enjoy my success? ›

Each milestone gives you another dopamine hit, which makes you want to keep going with the job. But when you reach your goal, that release of dopamine drops. It's harder for you biochemically to have joy.

Why is happiness more important than success? ›

Success Won't Do You Any Good If You Are Not Happy. If the end-goal of your hard work is to find happiness after you succeed, chances are you might get the opposite of what you're looking for. You might climb your way to the top only to realize that you aren't any happier than you were when you started.

Can successful people be unhappy? ›

Being financially secure, professionally successful, and loved should be a great basis for happiness, but as we all know from personal experience, it's perfectly possible to have all these things and still be pretty miserable.

Are successful people always happy people? ›

Truly successful people first find happiness and a passion for life and their work. They find a way to live a balanced life that has a positive impact on those around them.

What comes first happiness or success? ›

The results of all three types of studies suggest that happiness leads to behaviors that often lead to further success in work, relationships, and health and that this success stems from these positive feelings.

What psychology says about success? ›

Successful people are driven to succeed. They have a psychological need to achieve their goals and status is important to them. If you work harder and put in more hours, you'll make more money.

Is success a habit or a choice? ›

Success Is A Habit, But It's Not Routine.

Why are high achievers often unhappy? ›

High achievers struggle with quenching their insatiable need for accomplishment. The goals they put blinders on to achieve are pursued to the detriment of their relationships, free time, and fulfillment of physical and emotional needs.

Why do successful people feel depressed? ›

There's also the perception — and sometimes reality — of constant competition and failure doesn't seem to be an option. Grueling hours, constant criticism from others, including strangers, and a loss of the identity you once possessed can open the door to mental health conditions such as depression.

Why does success feel bitter? ›

One plausible explanation for this phenomenon has to do with dopamine, a neuromodulator that gives us a sense of pleasurable anticipation of a reward. Dopamine is elevated before you achieve a goal and depleted afterward. This leads to what you might call “anti-anticipation,” or a sense of emptiness.

Is happiness the end goal of life? ›

To summarise from Pursuit of Happiness (2018), according to Aristotle, the purpose and ultimate goal in life is to achieve eudaimonia ('happiness'). He believed that eudaimonia was not simply virtue, nor pleasure, but rather it was the exercise of virtue.

What did Bill Gates say about happiness? ›

How to be happy? According to Bill Gates. Happiness cannot be bought. By this Gates means do things with intention, set your mind to something, and stick to it, do what you promise and commit to seeing it through to the end.

Do success and happiness go hand in hand? ›

Research has shown that success often follows happiness, and not the other way around. This is an interesting thing to contemplate, given our culture's obsession with making ourselves unhappy in our search for success (have you ever been on a diet?).

Why is being successful so lonely? ›

Success can be a lonely place because the expectations don't stop - they get higher. Success can be a lonely place because there is so much more at stake and so many more livelihoods and legacies that you are playing for.

Do successful people fail a lot? ›

Failure is, inevitably, part of any success story. Those at the top have pasts littered with start-ups that went under or ideas that never got off the ground. The greatest risks yield the greatest reward, but you have to risk it over and over again until you create something that sticks.

Which type of people always succeed? ›

You can't ignore the huge amount of hard work and effort they've put in their ideas, projects and start up since day one.
  • Visionary people. ...
  • Creative Geniuses. ...
  • Lifelong-learner.

Are people who smile more successful? ›

In addition to making you more popular and attractive to others, smiling can also improve your financial success. Creating positive feelings in the people around will increase your social capital, which makes you likely to earn more money during your career.

Are most successful people humble? ›

The most successful people in business are the most humble. Please don't misunderstand. Humble doesn't mean weak. In fact, experts say that the best CEO is someone who has drive and passion, but tempers those qualities with humility.

What are the 3 keys to success? ›

Irrespective of what “Success” means to each, what has been clearly understood that there are three key elements of success. They are - Clarity of Purpose, Growth Mindset, and Courage. Without purpose, it is hard to have a clear direction. It is important to know what you want and what you are striving for.

What are the 3 key ingredients of success? ›

Goals, effort, legacy – three ingredients for success.

Who said success is not the key to happiness? ›

Albert Schweitzer Quotes

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

What is the number one rule of success? ›

Here's the rule:

Do what you need to do, before you do what you want to do.

What is the best mindset for success? ›

​ A growth mindset is simply the belief that our basic abilities can be developed and improved through dedication and hard work. It's not so much that this belief is some kind of magic. It's just that without a growth mindset, we don't exert the required effort and so we remain perpetually stuck.

What are the 10 rules for success? ›

10 Essential Rules For Success In Life
  • Live with integrity. ...
  • Do what it is that ignites your soul. ...
  • Find mentors and role models. ...
  • Grow 1% every day. ...
  • Surround yourself with greatness to unleash your greatness. ...
  • Embrace failure. ...
  • Give more than you take. ...
  • Eliminate the bad apples.

Why do high achievers quit? ›

Don't Feel Valued or Appreciated

Up to 79 percent of workers say that they quit their jobs because they believed that their employers didn't show that they were appreciated. When your best achievers don't get recognized for what they do, they start to look for other job opportunities elsewhere.

Why do high achievers procrastinate? ›

The link between procrastination and “perfection”

It seems counterintuitive — but high-achievers often fall victim to procrastination because of their high expectations. And the more they care about something, the harder it is to start.

Do high achievers have low self esteem? ›

Most high achievers have always had low self-esteem.

It's a result of learned behaviors and beliefs rooted deep into their past and the need for praise and approval. All children need and seek validation as a way of developing their sense of self worth.

Why do successful people have anxiety? ›

People who are highly accomplished fear being perceived as weak or incapable. They pride themselves on being able to 'do it all' — it's part of their identity,” says Wilding. “Because of this, they tend to have a harder time asking for help.

How does success affect mental health? ›

Being successful makes us feel good, gives us good energy and also makes us go on to do more and build more ideas. Success to a lot of us is a boost of energy so it is very good for our self-esteem and it will also boost our immunity. But does that mean that our mental health will be on a low if we don't succeed?

Can you be rich and depressed? ›

Most people think that the richer they are, the happier they become. However, evidence shows that this isn't necessarily the case. In fact, recent studies have shown that the more money you have, the more likely you are to suffer from depression and other mental health problems.

Does success feel lonely? ›

It's a lonely journey.

The path to success can be extremely lonely. You may have people around you, but despite that, sometimes you might feel lost and lonely. This happens because the lives of most successful people are different from those of the masses.

Why is success the sweetest revenge? ›

Success can often be deemed the best revenge because you're not even the one having to tell others about it. As you work in silence, your success makes the noise for you. Others begin to champion your accomplishments, telling those around you just what you were able to accomplish and achieve.

What is the success syndrome? ›

INTRODUCTION. that feelings of joy and personal satisfaction that follow success are fleeting epitomizes the disorders associated with The Success Syndrome. The Success Syndrome refers to the positive and neg- ative outcomes that follow the attainment of a significant. achievement, victory, or goal.

Why is happiness a pointless goal? ›

“'Happiness' is a pointless goal. Don't compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically.

What is the ultimate goal of a human? ›

According to Aristotle, happiness is the goal of human existence because it is an end in itself. Even through virtue a person can find happiness. Whatever humans do they do for happiness as a means to happiness.

What is life's ultimate goal? ›

So, achieving happiness can be said to be the ultimate goal in life. No matter what we want to do or pursue, happiness seems to be the most significant factor in why we do things. However, there is some problem when we keep attaching happiness to a future obtainable state, object, or event.

What did Mark Twain say about happiness? ›

Happiness ain't a thing in itself--it's only a contrast with something that ain't pleasant. As soon as the novelty is over and the force of contrast dulled, it ain't happiness any longer, and you have to get something fresh.

What did Abraham Lincoln say about happiness? ›

Abraham Lincoln said this more than 150 years ago, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be," and it's as true today as when he first said it. Even when we are in the midst of daunting circumstances, there is still so much to be happy about and grateful for.

What did Adam Smith say about happiness? ›

Adam Smith observed that lasting happiness is found in tranquility as opposed to consumption. In their quest for more consumption, people have forgotten about the three virtues Smith observed that best provide for a tranquil lifestyle and overall social well-being: justice, beneficence and prudence.

What are the three rules of happy life? ›

3 Rules for a Happier Life
  • Cultivate your talents. ...
  • Accept yourself. ...
  • Seek out new experiences.
Aug 19, 2014

How success is better than failure? ›

Success is good but failure is better. You must not let successes get to your head but also must not let failure consume your heart. Know that, sometimes, actually most times, things don't go as planned and that is perfectly fine. For many young people, it's easy to simply give up when things don't work out.

Which comes first happiness or success? ›

The results of all three types of studies suggest that happiness leads to behaviors that often lead to further success in work, relationships, and health and that this success stems from these positive feelings.

What are the 5 stages of success? ›

Here's a breakdown of the new Five Stages of Success:
  • Stage 1: Planning. You'll create a full plan for your business or a new initiative. ...
  • Stage 2: Goal Setting. You'll define and refine the goals you want to accomplish in order to get to where you want to go. ...
  • Stage 3: Research. ...
  • Stage 4: Action. ...
  • Stage 5: Scaling.
Aug 31, 2022

What are the 3 strongest predictors of happiness? ›

12 Things That Are Better Predictors of Happiness Than Money, “Success”, or Accolades
  1. The ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries. ...
  2. Meaningful relationships. ...
  3. Being in control of one's time. ...
  4. Having a positive self-image. ...
  5. Good health. ...
  6. A growth mindset. ...
  7. The ability to focus in a culture of distraction.
May 10, 2022

What is the golden rule of happiness? ›

5 .

The golden rule of happiness is that “the more you make others happy: the happier you will be”.

Does IQ affect happiness? ›

Happiness is significantly associated with IQ. Those in the lowest IQ range (70–99) reported the lowest levels of happiness compared with the highest IQ group (120–129).


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