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The Difference between Success and Happiness

A lot of people tend to confuse these two words. We work hard, focus on our goals, and figure that happiness will come once we achieve success. Don’t fall for this deception.

Happiness is a feeling. It can be triggered by external factors — a friend, a lover, a place, an event, a food or a drink — but it comes from inside ourselves. We can choose to be happy, even if things around us are chaotic and we’re all alone.

There’s a tendency for some of us to rely on others for our happiness. It’s more likely if we were raised in an environment of rewards and punishments. It’s more likely if we were not given unconditional love as a child, or if we were constantly criticized by those around us. In a hostile environment like this, we can unconsciously give away our ability to find happiness in ourselves. We become dependent for our happiness on external forces. We set goals and tell ourselves, “I’ll be happy when I achieve that goal.” Then often we’ll find that happiness continues to elude us when the goal is achieved, and so we set yet another goal, continuing to strive for that ultimate happiness that never seems to arrive. We fall into the trap of equating happiness with success.

On the simplest level, we succeed when we achieve an objective. That’s technically what the word “succeed” means, and success is what comes from succeeding. But for many of us the word “success” means so much more. It’s more personal. Success is not something we do — it’s something we become: we strive to become “a success.” And so being successful becomes our all consuming goal, the thing that justifies all of the frustration and pain that we endure on a day by day basis.

Ironically, our personal definition of success keeps enlarging as we get closer to our objective, so we never quite reach it. According to a survey I once read, most people say someone is “well off” if they make 50% more than you, and a “rich” person makes twice as much as you do. Your definition of wealth changes as your income increases — the more you make, the more you think you need — and the same thing is true with your definition of “being a success.” It’s like a dog race where the dogs can never catch the automated “rabbit” that runs in front of them — the target always stays a little bit ahead of you.

Happiness Does Not Come from Success
This is the biggest mistake many people make. They think they can postpone happiness until they achieve success. But happiness does not come from success. Instead, success comes from happiness. Ultimately your success in life will come from the amount of happiness you feel and the amount of happiness you share. Someone who enjoys life and makes life a joy for others will have a far greater impact on the world than someone who achieves an executive position or becomes rich.

And here’s the real irony: someone who enjoys life and makes life a joy for others is more likely to achieve an executive position or become rich! That’s because people who find their passion — the thing that makes them happiest — are more likely to be successful at it. When you really enjoy doing something — whether it’s art or design or building or math — you get so immersed in the process that you become truly great at doing it. And that greatness will position you for whatever kind of success comes from your field.

We’ve Got It Backwards
So many of us have been looking at things the wrong way. We have assumed that we have to postpone happiness in order to achieve success, and that the happiness we’re missing now will come to us once success is achieved.

But that’s backwards. We need to focus on the things that make us happy, find our passion, and discover the strengths that will maximize our happiness. And through that happiness we’ll achieve success.

I remember a cartoon in the New Yorker many years ago.  It showed a songbird talking to a human.  The songbird was saying, “I don’t sing because I’m happy.  I am happy because I sing.”  The bird discovered its passion, and so can you.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jon July 11, 2010, 7:36 pm

    What an excellent and thought provoking article.

    I’ve been assembling similar ideas for my own book, and am now wondering whether I’m re-inventing the wheel.

    Seriously, I am really grateful for this one, thank-you ( – I think – lol )

    Best wishes


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