Many wealthy people are little more than the janitors of their possessions. ̴ Frank Lloyd Wright

For as long as I can remember my goal was to be successful. As a teenager, I was dead-set on being financially independent as soon as possible so I would be free to live as I chose. Be careful what you ask for…

How’s This Working?

After giving a talk to a group of young professionals, a determined woman in her late thirties cornered me. “I’ve been married for six years. We met in college. I loved his competiveness and how he dreamed of creating a big life.” Her jaw tightened. “His business is booming. He works in it and on it all the time.” Their marriage was a different story. A tear emerged. She said, “I don’t even recognize him anymore. He’s not the guy I fell in love with. He’s become obsessed with work, either detached or absent from our children. He gets very defensive if I even hint that he’s out of balance or we’re drifting apart.” My heart sank as I imagined my wife twenty years earlier. I was that guy—rich, successful, and asleep.

Are you that guy? Could you be? The answer to that question has a lot to do with how you have defined success.

What Makes You Happy?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness and arguably the most credible scientist studying what makes people happy, divides the determinants of happiness three ways. The bad news is that 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our genes. Each of us has a certain preset level of happiness.

Another determinant of our happiness is our life circumstances: the car we drive, the house we live in, our job, family situation, physical appearance, life history, and similar external factors. These factors account for an astoundingly low 10 percent of our happiness. The good news is that 40 percent of our happiness is determined by our thoughts, behavior and daily goals. In other words, to a large degree, happiness is a choice.

If there is truth in the science why do most people focus 90 percent of their energy on the 10 percent happiness factors? If we’re honest about it, humans are lousy predictors of what will make them happy.

The Implications for Business

We keep thinking success will lead to happiness when in fact the opposite is true. Read Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage for the research, then read my book The Business of Wanting More on how to get there. If you think this is fuzzy-bunny stuff that has nothing to do with business the evidence will prove you wrong. Optimistic, social, service-oriented employees who know how to process stress are the most successful at work. IQ and technical skills account for less than 25 percent of a person’s success.

Success is a High-Stakes Game

I’m not knocking success. It’s exhilarating to line up your activities with your strengths and get feedback that you have the right stuff. The challenge comes when you get in flow (read Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), receive lots of affirmation, and then feel the endorphins release. We become addicts mainlining adrenaline. We’re like the monkey who gets caught not because he grabbed the banana in the glass jar but because he refused to let go of it and pull his hand out. The paradox of success is that we become addicted to the thing we wanted so badly but never really needed. In the process of getting it we’re pulled further away from what it is we long for most.

Hooked on a narrow definition of success, we succumb to one of the following:

  1. Our relationships become collateral damage in our battle to succeed.
  2. We wake up at mid-life and say, “Something’s missing. Is this all there is?”
  3. We keep accumulating more—more stuff, more “once in a lifetime” experiences, more accomplishments, or more complexity—that we never really needed in the first place.

paradox-of-successWhy We Seek More of What We Don’t Need

Why do we pursue what doesn’t fulfill us? First let’s look at our relationship with money. We don’t know how much is “enough.” I initially thought it was $5 million. It wasn’t. When my net worth hit $50 million I drifted into a depression that comes when you realize not only have you leaned your ladder against the wrong wall, it’s in the wrong zip code. Credible studies show that “enough” is $75,000. Above this, money has little impact on happiness.

Then there’s the Hedonic Treadmill effect. Possessions, status or physical attributes make us happy for a very short time. Our minds adapt too quickly. Hence why lottery winners are no happier a year after winning the lottery than before, and paraplegics are no less happy a year after becoming paralyzed than before. And if the Hedonic Treadmill doesn’t get us, the social comparisons will. These two dynamics have cosmetic surgeons laughing all the way to the bank.

What Really Makes You Happy?

I had to lose all my money a couple times to figure out what made me happy. I want to save you the pain. I want to help you avoid losing something important like your health, your passion for living, your marriage, or your relationship with your kids.

Who is the happiest person you know? Who is happy almost regardless of their circumstances? Are they healthy and resilient? This is what Dan Buettner asked. He searched the globe to find communities with the highest concentration of old people and wrote The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for Living Longer. Buettner found that these people weren’t just old, they were happy. His findings about increasing longevity are lessons on how to be happier. They include physical habits like moving your body naturally (you don’t have to do Cross Fit—gardening will do), eating moderately (80 percent full) and not a lot of red meat, drinking moderately, and kicking back occasionally. There were internal factors such as having faith (spirituality matters) and having a purpose. And, finally, they included relational elements like investing in family and staying social.

Just One Thing

Craft your success goals well. If you’re over thirty don’t be successful in order to be happy or prove something. Invest in what really makes you happy. In search of happiness, the most important quality a high-achiever can cultivate is self-compassion. Self-compassion is the gateway to balance and living a big life that’s centered in a few very key relationships. This is the foundation for a life you won’t regret.