Home » Some myths about success and happiness to dispel – Arthur C. Brooks

Some myths about success and happiness to dispel – Arthur C. Brooks

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Some myths about success and happiness to dispel – Arthur C. Brooks

06 November 2022 08:59

Without fear of being proven wrong, I can say that almost all human beings pursue two goals in their professional career: success and happiness. On the one hand, people want to achieve a good level of financial stability and due recognition for their achievements, experience the greatest possible pleasure in the workplace, and become happier as a result. These are reasonable aspirations, but they can often seem excessive. For this reason many individuals, especially the most ambitious and diligent ones, simplify the equation in an apparently logical way: they seek success in the belief that it is the antechamber of happiness.

But this is wrong reasoning. Chasing success has a high cost and can often jeopardize the achievement of happiness, as can certainly be confirmed by a large group of workaholic workers, alone and exhausted.

This does not mean that we are necessarily forced to choose between success and happiness. Achieving both is possible. But to do this it is necessary to reverse the process: instead of trying to achieve success and hoping it will lead to happiness, it is better to start with the pursuit of happiness, which will surely also lead to an increase in business success.

Beyond the salary
In general, success and happiness have a positive correlation, as many studies on the workforce show. For example, companies included in Forbes magazine’s “Top 100 Companies to Work For” list averaged 14 percent annual share price growth from 1998 to 2005, compared with an average of 6 percent per year. the market in general. As Gallup data indicates, industries that fall into the 99th percentile for employee engagement levels (a situation where employees feel listened to, respected, intellectually stimulated, and have a colleague as a best friend), perform better. 73 percent higher than the company average and 78 percent higher than the industry average.

From this correlation many derive a cause-and-effect relationship: success brings happiness. In my experience, I have found that people usually believe that an increase in salary, especially a large one, will have a major and lasting effect on their job satisfaction. But the data tells a different story. Large wage increases have a limited and transitory effect on welfare. In 2017, researchers analyzed the wages and job satisfaction (on a scale of 0-10) of around 35,000 German workers over a period of several years. The study found that anticipating a 100 percent pay rise had increased job satisfaction by a quarter of a point in the year prior to promotion. The actual salary increase had then generated a further increase of a fifth of a point. However, four years after the increase, the improvement in job satisfaction had dropped to less than a fifth of a point in total.

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Cash and status benefits often do not coincide with growth in personal satisfaction

In other words, assuming your job satisfaction scores 6 out of 10 (you don’t fare badly, but it could be better) a doubling of your salary will get you to a score of 6.5, but then drop to 6, 2. Perhaps pursuing financial satisfaction is not the best strategy to be able to love your job.

Among other things, these analyzes do not take into account the negative impact that the search for job success has on satisfaction in general. In 2016, some psychologists measured career success by asking 990 full-time graduates to compare their work results to those of others. The researchers found that the subjects generally enjoyed the cash and status benefits, but the success did not give them overall fulfillment. On the contrary, it indirectly undermined personal satisfaction by reducing free time, increasing stress and worsening the subjects’ social relationships.

Happy, attractive and productive
Much more positive results emerged when the researchers reversed the order of the process, looking not for the effects of success on happiness but those of happiness on success. In 2005, scholars analyzed hundreds of researches (including some experiments to verify causality) and concluded that happiness leads to success in many contexts of life, including marriage, friendship, health, income and work results.

One explanation for this phenomenon could be that happiness makes you more attractive and therefore increases the likelihood of being rewarded by others. But it’s also possible that happiness simply makes us more productive. The latest experimental research suggests that both mechanisms are real. For example, in 2021 some researchers studied Chinese authors who broadcast live online and who derive their main source of income from user contributions. When these people showed more positive emotions, the contributions immediately increased, indicating that the market rewarded individuals who appeared happy.

In another experiment, some British citizens carried out a mathematical-arithmetic test with a time limit. The researchers found that people who were shown a scene from a comic movie before the test were 12 percent more productive than others. Furthermore, the more a subject thought the scene was funny, the more productive he was.

Stay away from overwork
Whether you are an employer or an employee, trying to improve happiness in the workplace and in life is a better investment than pursuing success.

The first thing to keep in mind is that happiness needs balance. No matter how much you enjoy your job, overwork will inevitably become an obstacle to well-being. In 2020, researchers examined the case of 414 Iranian bank employees and found that behaviors related to overwork (perfectionism and work addiction) corresponded to a hostile atmosphere in the professional environment (aggression, violation of privacy , marginalization, gossip). In addition, the overwork had reduced the quality of family life (measured by the degree of agreement or disagreement with phrases such as “my involvement in work gives me a feeling of success which in turn helps me to be a better person in the family. “).

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It is important to stay away from overwork and to help friends and family who are affected by this disorder. But it is equally important that employers avoid encouraging overwork among their employees, because the consequences of this behavior would likely require more effort and attention from executives, as research shows that employers underestimate problems. related to employee well-being.

Purpose and meaning
Once you gain control over the amount of work, happiness in the professional environment requires a sense of meaning and purpose. In one of my columns I wrote that the two crucial elements of a fulfilling job are the perception of a deserved success and feeling useful to the community. The perception of deserved success implies a sense of achievement and recognition of a job well done, while feeling useful implies knowing real people who benefit from our work. Several researches have highlighted the importance of these work aspects. For example, Gallup found that people who are committed to their communities and receive recognition for them report much lower levels of stress and worry than others, whether they are not serving their communities or receiving proper recognition.

At the same time, the most satisfying jobs tend to be the most community-oriented ones. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Pew research center, people employed in the public sector or in non-profit organizations (generally service-oriented businesses) say that their employment gives them a sense of identity more often than do those of the private sector. In some professions it is more difficult to feel at the service of others, but it is usually still possible to do so. Years ago, he worked with a team of academic researchers to improve banking regulations. A scholar who was particularly passionate about our project repeated to me that his work was important because poor people need to be able to access credit on acceptable terms and this goal requires a streamlining of bureaucratic procedures.

Even if you cannot identify the people who benefit from your work, perhaps because they are very far away or because your work affects them only indirectly, try to look around, perhaps at the next desk. You can always reap the benefits of service by helping colleagues. Research shows that collaborative activity at work can help reduce negative emotions.

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Ultimately, although success and happiness are evidently linked, this alchemy only works in one direction, and it’s not what most people imagine. Pursuing success in the belief that it brings happiness is an inefficient strategy at best, and at worst it could prove counterproductive and lead to unhappiness. Pursuing happiness, on the other hand, increases the chances of achieving success as well.

Even if this all makes sense to you, you may still fall back into the old habit of seeking happiness through business success. Don’t worry, it happens to me too despite being a specialist in this sector. When I realize that my working hours are dangerously approaching workaholic levels and my dreams of happiness revolve around a job success, I reread a story published by Franz Kafka in 1922, entitled A fasting artist. The story is that of a traveling artist who decides to earn a living by locking himself in a cage and fasting. He is obsessed with his work of him, and is so perfectionist that he aspires to a “flawless fast”. He is proud of his success with him, but he is always sad, and, writes Kafka, “if a good-hearted person happened to pity him and wanted to explain to him how that melancholy probably came from fasting, it could also happen […] that the fasting artist would respond with a fit of fury “.

With the passage of time, the spectacle of the faster loses the favor of the public. In an effort to revitalize his career, the fasting artist tries to fast for longer than he ever has. But everyone ignores it. So he sits alone in his cage until he starves to death. With a surreal twist, which we could also define as Kafkaesque, the protagonist admits just before dying that the only reason he had started fasting was that he couldn’t find a food he liked.

Of course my situation is not that desperate. But there is a bit of Kafka’s fasting artist in me, and maybe even in you. Here is my advice: you will never find happiness by giving up happiness. Don’t fast. By eating, your chances of success will increase.

(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)

This article appeared in the US monthly The Atlantic.

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