When we meet people who seem to be both successful and happy, we tend to think that they are happy because they are successful. Many of us were brought up to think that if we worked hard and succeeded, happiness will naturally follow. In the past few years, researchers have re-examined the relationship between success and happiness, and found that this seemingly-obvious assumption of success leading to happiness is inaccurate. First, happiness is a by-product of the pursuit of success, rather than successful accomplishments [1]. Individuals who are actively engaged in the pursuit of goals that are meaningful to them, experience a range of positive emotions and become happier. Simply put, one does not have to succeed to be happy – the more important thing is to try. In addition, the relationship between success and happiness also goes the other way around: While success could lead to greater happiness, happiness also leads to success [2]. People who experience more positive affect over time are more likely to earn more money, perform better at work, and are better team players [3].

The net of it is that rather than focusing on performance and accomplishments as our ultimate goals, we would be better off:

  1. Focusing on our happiness as the ultimate goal, and:
  2. Choosing goals that are meaningful to us, even if we sometimes fail to accomplish them

Yet instead, our society often goes in the opposite direction of being fixated on achievement. The fundamental mistake of placing success before happiness now starts at a very young age. While in school, the most important thing is to get into the right college. In many communities this could mean getting into the “right” private school in kindergarten. Many children find themselves focused on their performance: at school, in sports, in playing musical instruments, etc. By the time they graduate from high school, many young people would have sacrificed much of their teenage years. They find themselves getting into the right college, obtaining a scholarship, then graduating, landing a great first job, only to discover that the rat race continues, and now they need to push further to be promoted. Many move far from home instead of getting a job in a place where they can easily find friends, socialize, belong, and contribute. In the meantime, they may realize that they are lonely. They face a new life transition that was not there before – a new step between entering adulthood and starting a family.

The result: The average age for the onset of depression has dropped significantly. It used to be approximately 40 years of age. Now, it is 27 and continues to drop [4], [5], [6]. It’s hard to be a young adult today. Young people are becoming socially isolated, even alienated. Ironically, the saddest young adults are sometimes those who achieved all they set out to. No fun in high school and college, no friends, no girlfriend/boyfriend and a deep astonishment that they are not happy – even though they accomplished everything they had set out to do.

Research has already uncovered the paths to happiness and the risk of over-focusing on performance. To put the Happiness back in Young and Happy, young people should not only focus on performance and success, but on the range of needs and aspirations that they have: to have friends, to find a soul mate, to think, read, perhaps do a few reckless and rebellious things.

It could be a tough call though. Given the opportunity to be in the gifted class, get a better-paying job, get into an Ivy League school, would you be able to say no? Will you advise your children to say no? Please do share.

[1] Uusiautti, S. (2013). On the positive connection between success and happiness. International Journal of Research Studies in Psychology, 3(1).

[2] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?.Psychological bulletin, 131(6), 803.

[3] Boehm, J. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Does happiness promote career success?. Journal of career assessment, 16(1), 101-116.

[4] Brees, K. (2008). Everything Health Guide to Depression. Everything Books.

[5] Mays, Mark, and James W. Croake, eds. Treatment of depression in managed care. Vol. 7. Psychology Press, 1997.

[6] Lam, Raymond W. and Hiram Wok. 2008. Depression. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

This post was originally published on The Ride of Your Life by Ran Zilca