Happiness Causes Success

Last week Cait Flanders wrote about how some people treated happiness as a general vibe that they exude and others pursued happiness as a destination. Thinking about this idea started me on a path that had me digging back through my notes on happiness research.

Our culture tends to treat happiness as a destination. Happiness is a goal for which you strive. And of course, the most surefire way to reach happiness is to be successful.

If we stop and think about this premise though, it falls apart. If success causes happiness, then we should be able to see the results.

We should achieve happiness when we get our promotion or when we hit our quarterly projections. We should hit that happiness destination when we reach our outside goals.

But we don’t. We are, of course, happy when we succeed. For a time. And then we settle in and aim for new goals, convinced that the new goals will make us happy.

It isn’t a system to be sustainably happy. It doesn’t make sense to believe that success causes any sort of long-term happiness.

And the research bears this out.

Happiness Causes Success

Studies have found that we’re looking at this backwards. Success doesn’t cause happiness. Happiness causes success.

A research team (including Sonja Lyubomirsky, whose work we have looked at before) did a meta-analysis of studies on happiness and success. This means that they put together a lot of different studies and analyzed the combined results. In this case, there were over 200 hundred studies included.

The analysis found that happier people are more productive, better performing, better managers, and more positively evaluated by their supervisors. They are less likely to encounter burnout and more likely to be able to move into positions that have more autonomy, meaning, and variety.

This means that happier people will get better jobs, perform better in them, and last longer in the workforce. And, in case that wasn’t enough, they make more money.

If the workplace isn’t your measure of success, then the study has answers for you as well. Happy people had stronger relationships with friends and family, more stable marriages, better mental and physical health.


There is a growing field of research finding that feelings of happiness (and other positive emotions) broaden our thoughts. When we are happy we have thought patterns that are more inclusive, creative, efficient, and open to new information. We also have expanded powers of attention when we are happy.

These all combine to make success much easier. If we are more creative and efficient, while also being able to pay more attention and to include more information in our thought-process, then we are much better at solving problems. If we are better at solving problems we are more likely to be successful.

This is discussed in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, in which he pulls out a few studies that provide good examples of this in action.

Achor points to a study of four-year-olds. The children were asked to put blocks together as quickly as possible. One group was just given the instructions and another was told to think of something that makes them happy before they started. The happy kids “significantly outperformed” the neutral kids. (In the context of block building, success is building quicker and with fewer errors).

Achor then notes studies that have found the same effect in students taking standardized tests and business people negotiating deals.

Happiness expands your problem solving abilities. With those abilities increased, it is easier to achieve our goals and be successful, whatever field that success falls into.

How We Can Use This

It is time that we flip our thinking. We cannot keep waiting for happiness. We cannot keep treating it as a destination or a prize for being successful.

We need to go out and find happiness ourselves, and then success will come all that much easier.

Need somewhere to start? How about trying some of these:

16 thoughts on “Happiness Causes Success”

  1. Matt:

    This has become so clear to me lately. Happiness cannot be a destination. I have lived an example of what you have described. If we ever get to the destination and experience the short term happiness, we almost instantly reset the destination, and pursue happiness once again. Rinse, lather and repeat. Forever.

    I have been having some success funding happiness in myself, but I am interested to start reading through your links, as my success is up and down, so thanks!
    The Tepid Tamale recently posted…Should I re-define Early Retirement? At least for me?My Profile

    1. Thanks! It can be hard when we first realize that we need to take responsibility for our own happiness. It is a lot of work to figure out what works and what doesn’t for us. Best of luck on your journey!
      Matt recently posted…Make Space to Be WrongMy Profile

  2. Yes! We tend to go back to a stable level of happiness, even a short time after some big “happy” moment occurs in our lives. This has been important for me to realize – it’s not those isolated moments that are as important as our mindset and the day-to-day appreciation for our lives. 🙂

    Meditation is helpful! Though I’m new to it and am still working on making it a habit in daily life, I’ve noticed my stress levels (and happiness!) on the days when I meditate are less. I’ve tried a couple of different methods and found the Headspace app works the best for me.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…The #1 Reason we have successfully lived on one income for 16 yearsMy Profile

    1. I like Headspace, as well. I find that taking 15 minutes out of the day just to sit, even if I have trouble focusing, really helps put everything in perspective.

      Thanks, Amanda!
      Matt recently posted…Make Space to Be WrongMy Profile

  3. I view this as more of a chicken and egg scenario. It’s not happiness is a destination, although I do still see happiness as a goal. I see it as a goal that also is a necessary ingredient for reaching other goals. I don’t view financial success as bringing happiness, though I do view it as an additional enabler of happiness. But I also view being happy as a key to reaching financial success since if your unhappy you won’t sustain your plan. I.E. I view it as more of an intertwined situation where the two are inseperable. Success is happiness, happiness is success. Achieving either requires other happiness and other success. It builds.
    Full Time Finance recently posted…The Right and Wrong Reasons to become and EntrepreneurMy Profile

    1. I can definitely see them building on each other, as long as you have the right mindset. It can be tricky to know where to look for happiness, but once you do it can be part of a larger plan.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Make Space to Be WrongMy Profile

  4. I just started reading “Spontaneous Happiness” by Andrew Weil. I think it was recommended by someone in the comments sections of one of Cait’s recent posts. Weil seems to think we should strive to attain that stable level of happiness Amanda mentioned.

    I think success doesn’t cause happiness because success usually is measured by attaining something or reaching a goal. Happiness is more intrinsic and immeasurable.

    Looking forward to checking out your links.

  5. I definitely agree that happiness is the road to being successful. I find that when I am in a healthy and happy state of mind, I tend to be more motivated to do more and to achieve a higher result. On the other hand, when I am not happy, I tend not to want to achieve anything.

    So I guess I want to be happy and keep the people around me happy.
    Leo T. Ly @ isaved5k.com recently posted…The Benefits Of Investing With A PartnerMy Profile

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