Does Success Lead to Happiness?


It’s an age-old question: does success make you happy? As it turns out, the answer is a pretty unequivocal, “no.” In fact, as Arthur Brooks discusses in his recent article for The Atlantic, “Ultimately, although success and happiness are linked, the alchemy is mostly one-way—and not in the way that most people think.”

When we focus on chasing “success” in terms of markers like sales targets, promotions, and pay rises, it can be like climbing a ladder to a mythical world because we think we’ll be so much happier there, but we never seem to actually arrive – and we seriously deplete ourselves in the process.

As an employer, if you try to motivate your people towards “successful” professional outcomes, while neglecting their happiness and wellbeing, they are likely to simply become overworked and stressed as they strive to meet these expectations. They might get a small bump of satisfaction from these things, but it will always be short-lived.

Brooks, who is currently the Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, concludes: “Whether you are an employee or employer, it is a better investment to increase happiness at work and in life, rather than simply trying to increase measures of success.”

Workaholism is Harmful to Happiness

Brooks refers to a 2020 survey of 414 employees of a public bank in Iran, which is just one example of the tangible data that shows the effects of “workaholism” on both our professional and personal lives. The results demonstrated that employers and employees who exhibit workaholic behaviours and attitudes (perfectionism, for example) are likely to find that their personal and family lives suffer from an unhealthy work/life balance, leading to even more stress and overwhelm. This can then translate into an increasingly negative attitude at work, and even hostility and other “uncivil” behaviours.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that none of these is conducive to an effective, productive, creative, or collaborative work environment. On the other hand, when we are happy and healthy we are more likely to be positive and motivated at work, to cultivate healthy and fruitful working relationships, and to be more creative and productive in our output.

Employers Tend to Overestimate Employee Wellbeing

Maybe this all sounds fairly obvious when you think about it, but the fact is that many employers continue to prioritise and reward traditional markers of “success”, while underestimating the importance of employee happiness as a significant driver of this success. Employee wellbeing and happiness can all too often be an afterthought, a “nice to have.”

Brooks points to a survey conducted by Deloitte, in partnership with independent research firm Workplace Intelligence, involving 2,100 employees and C-suite executives across the UK, US, Canada, and Australia. The headline finding was that employers appear to be significantly overestimating the wellbeing of their employees. For example, C-suite executives estimated that 84% of their people would report “excellent” or “good” for mental wellbeing, whereas the self-reported figures from employees came in at only 59%.

Even if we agree that happiness and wellbeing are important drivers of motivation and productivity in the workplace, the problem still remains that there is often a disconnect between executives and the day-to-day lived experiences of the people within their organisations.

How to Invest in Happiness at Work

This is one of the fundamental aims of our work at Inpulse – providing platforms and tools for employers to connect with their people and get an accurate picture of employee wellbeing. We have a full suite of surveys for management and leadership to measure things like employee engagement, wellbeing, culture, and communication across the organisation to try and close this gap between employee reality and employer perceptions or assumptions.

Happiness at work is often correlated to a sense of meaning and purpose, so one way to nurture this in your organisation is to conduct some vision and values workshops that engage your people with the big picture goals of your work. This allows them to see the purpose and value of their role within a collaborative endeavour that actually means something.

You can also check out our recent blog post on 10 Ideas For An Effective Company Wellness Program for suggestions of some sustainable initiatives that you can implement to help shape your company culture around wellbeing over the long-term, and in all areas of life.

Finally, remember that this correlation between happiness and success applies to you as an employer, just as much as it applies to the people within your organisation. Brooks’ summary of the data is a healthy maxim for us all: “Working on your success to get happier is inefficient at best, and may blow up in your face and lead you to unhappiness. But working on your happiness gives you the best chance at getting both.”

Master Engagement Throughout the Employee Lifecycle