Why Successful People Are Not Happy

by Mark Jaffe | January 15, 2018 6:48 pm

The ladder of success leads rung by rung to merely more success, not happiness.

Fatherhood has a way of forcing us to reexamine our views in a way that is always not so easy.

I always felt that, as a father, part of my role was to try to put my son’s newfound experiences into perspective. He had just graduated college and was starting a new job. He was on his way to a successful career, and we had frequent discussions about success and what that meant. I wanted to give him the benefit of my hard-earned wisdom, so I decided to spend some time determining my own definition of success.

I wanted a simpler way to measure success that I could pass along to my son. Otherwise, how would he know what success looked like? How would he know if he had achieved it? How would he know when it was okay to step off the treadmill?

How do any of us know?

This is what I came up with: “Success is the ability to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, with people who are meaningful to you.”

I was struck by how this definition gave each of us wide latitude for tailoring it to our own lives. It did not prescribe any specific elements or prerequisites. It did not even address the acquisition of wealth or power, only what we chose to do with it, and whom, if anyone, we chose to do it with. Most importantly, it addressed the ability to reclaim and use time—truly our most limited resource.

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I tried this definition out with one of my clients, a woman whose company had grown exponentially in the last few years. “You missed one of the most important parts of success,” she scolded me. “I have the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I just don’t have the freedom to do it. I’m way too busy growing my company.”

I revised my definition: “Success is the ability and the freedom to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, with people who are meaningful to you.”

Clearly, success is not about stopping the activities that have given you financial freedom. It is about stopping the activities that prevent you from enjoying that financial freedom.

Some people never retire — not because they want more money, but because they truly love their jobs. They love waking up in the morning and doing their work. Albert Schweitzer, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

I remember my experience as the head of children’s entertainment at A&M Records. I was traveling all over the country, staying at the best hotels, eating at the finest restaurants, going to the greatest concerts and surrounded on a daily basis by interesting, forward-thinking creative people. I really loved my job. I woke on Monday with the same enthusiasm with which I woke on Saturday.

One day, I was speaking with one of my colleagues at the record company after a pretty amazing concert the night before. We both just couldn’t believe we were 27 years old and were living a life that as teenagers we could only dream about. “I would do this job for free,” my colleague exclaimed.

We didn’t know it, but we were already successful. We already did what we loved all the time with people we enjoyed. At a young age, we had achieved what so many never do.

There was a great column by Panos Mourdoukoutas in Forbes Magazine that, interestingly, appeared on a New Year’s Day, that time of year when so many people are making resolutions. It explained his view of the correlation between success and being happy. He asked the reader to consider two simple questions: “What am I doing today?” and “Why am I doing it?”

“If you are happy with the answers you came up with to both questions, get out of bed and enjoy the day,” he wrote. “If you are struggling to find the right answers, close your eyes and go back over the items on your to-do list.”

Imagine if you didn’t like the answers. Perhaps the top of your list might be filled with admirable goals and tasks—but they’re not right for you. They are right for somebody else who has been setting your agenda, or perhaps for the someone you think you should become. The goals that are important, the ones that will move you toward the happiest life, may have been systematically pushed down to the bottom of your list, minimized over time or even forgotten. That’s how you can wake up and wonder why if you have so much money and “success,” you are still unhappy.

People still think of success as the precursor to happiness, but the ladder of success leads, rung by rung, merely to more success. You might get the promotion or the bigger paycheck, and you are still nowhere even near the ladder to happiness.

It’s a terrible wake-up call, the kind Peggy Lee sang about. “Is That All There Is?” is a profound expression of disillusionment. The lyrics tell of a life’s major milestones, followed by that question — Is that all there is? After so much achievement, why does it all feel so empty?

The endless pursuit of success is understandable if you’re still hustling to pay your rent. There is a minimum level of financial security that people absolutely must have for shelter and food. Once those basic needs are met, though, there is time and energy for focusing on other types of goals, such as being happy.

Are your basic needs met? If so, it is time to take a hard look at how much time you need to spend following the money, and how much time you would like to spend following your passions.
Draw a vertical line down a piece of paper. On the left side, list your successes and accomplishments. On the right, make note of the specific moments of happiness each of these accomplishments afforded you. Were they worth it?

On a second sheet of paper, write down all of the experiences you wanted to have—alone or with others—that you couldn’t because you were busy pursuing success. Was the success worth it?
How do you know when you have achieved success: When you have given yourself the ability and freedom to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, with people who are meaningful to you.

To be clear, I am not opposed to making money. The problem with the endless pursuit of success is not the success or the money; it’s the endless pursuit of it—usually to the exclusion or minimization of the moments that make us happy.

Take the time now to reorient your energy toward enjoying happiness on your journey. It doesn’t mean you have to quit your job or give away your fortune. On the contrary, it means that the pursuit of success should afford you the ability to enjoy all of those moments of happiness.

Now. While you can. •

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