Would you choose happiness or success at work?

If you had to choose only one, would you prefer happiness or success at work? I recently posed this question on LinkedIn, and the majority leaned overwhelmingly towards happiness. This got me thinking. Isn’t it true that we all aspire to find both happiness and success at work? So, why was there a distinct preference for happiness?

I’ve come to believe that most people’s work expectations are quite similar. We all seek a rewarding job that provides us joy and financial stability and allows us to grow in our chosen direction. This, in turn, brings us closer to happiness at work. But what about success? What ensures our success at work?

The Ever-Ending Ladder of Success

In today’s world, particularly in the Western context, our perception of success depends on external factors. It starts with landing a good job in a reputable company with a decent salary. From there, it moves on to gaining recognition as a top performer, getting a promotion and a salary increase, expanding our skills, and then gunning for the next promotion. All these achievements, whether we attain them or not, tend to rely on validation from others. We cannot call ourselves “successful”; someone else has to do it. So, we press on.

The problem with success starts when all the positive emotions we feel after each achievement peak briefly and then begin to fade. We quickly grow accustomed to our success. It’s like climbing a never-ending ladder; no matter how high we’ve climbed, there are always more steps ahead of us. If we don’t keep ascending, we start feeling dissatisfied with our progress.

This cycle of dissatisfaction can lead to unhappiness. We’re constantly chasing a goal, always attached to the notion that the next achievement will be the one that really changes our lives. However, our brains are wired to enjoy the reward and then move on to the next. No matter how big the success and the reward, we will get used to them. This is called the hedonic treadmill in psychology.

What True Happiness Is About

True happiness comes when we step off the hedonic treadmill. And by happiness, I don’t just mean joy or pleasure, but a continuous state of invigorating peace, as the “world’s happiest person” defines it. This state of mind can only be achieved when we say to ourselves, “I’m content with what I have. Sure, I can strive for more, but I won’t get overly attached to the idea of having more.”

In essence, this is a form of success, but with a key difference: it doesn’t require external validation. We feel it internally; it’s intrinsic. We feel content where we are, balanced, and fulfilled. However, such sentiments cannot come from work alone. Our life outside work plays an equally, if not more, crucial role.

The Connection Between Happiness and Success

Research has shown that happy people are more likely to secure job offers, earn higher salaries, and display better work performance. These findings suggest that happiness can actually fuel success, which is known as the “happiness advantage”. Why is that, though?

According to both Buddhism and modern psychology, happiness comes when we accept the impermanence of everything. Nothing that happens to us defines us because everything constantly changes. Resisting this constant change because it ruins our plans can only waste our own energy, so why not just accept it?

Accepting what we cannot change is not passive, as some may think. We can still decide on our purpose and our goals, but be open to the idea that some things may throw us off course for a bit. How we perceive these things is what makes the difference to our happiness and success. A failure can become an opportunity that keeps us engaged. A bad manager can offer a learning experience on resilience. A rude colleague can act as a trial on how well we are leading with kindness, inspiring our team to do the same, rather than succumbing to someone’s negative energy.

Happier people are more successful because, no matter what comes in their way, they remain focused on their personal purpose. They are more optimistic that they can make the most out of any situation, while remaining kind to others, and engaged in their work.

The Role of Happiness in the Workplace

Achieving a workplace where everyone is equally successful is unrealistic. We cannot all earn the highest salary or get promoted annually or manage the best team. However, it is possible to build a workplace where everyone is happy, where each person’s values match the company’s, everyone understands how their work adds to the big picture, coworkers help and value each other, and managers focus on their team’s growth and engagement.

A happy workplace benefits not just individual employees, but also improves the company’s performance and financial outcomes. Creating a happy workplace, though, is not a side project for a few; it necessitates involvement from top-level executives, sufficient funding, time, and above all, a culture that respects each employee as an individual.

Personal Strategies for Happiness and Success at Work

Many employees might find themselves in a less-than-ideal work environment. Here are some strategies for these individuals to foster their own happiness and success at work:

Define your own success: Rather than relying solely on external markers of success, reflect on what truly brings you joy and fulfillment in your work. Set your personal goals based on your own values and passions, and then find how you can align them to organizational goals you cannot influence. It could be being useful to others, having a net-positive impact on the environment, or feeling proud at the end of the day. It could be anything that makes you content.

Express gratitude: Expressing gratitude for the positive aspects of your job can significantly enhance your overall happiness. Take a moment each day to acknowledge and appreciate the things you enjoy about your work. Say thank you to colleagues who helped you out that day, or tell them how fortunate you are to work with them. It will strengthen your relationship, and make both of you feel more motivated. Success will then follow.

Foster positive relationships: Building strong connections with your colleagues can contribute to a positive work environment and increase your overall happiness. Invest time in fostering supportive and collaborative relationships. Give your attention and time to others, and manage any temptation to be tactical out of competitiveness. Adam Grant’s research has shown that givers tend to be more successful in the workplace.

Prioritize self-care: Finding a healthy balance between the time you spend at work and the time you spend for yourself is essential for both happiness and success. Make time for activities outside of work that bring you joy and help you recharge. Plan ahead so that you have something to look forward to and something that you cannot cancel if something “urgent” comes up at work. And don’t wait for the weekend to spend time for yourself; do it every day, if possible. You deserve it.

Let’s keep it simple:

  • The relentless pursuit for success can lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
  • Happier people tend to be more successful, because they are purposeful, kinder, more engaged, and more resilient.
  • To become happier at the workplace, find your purpose, express gratitude, invest in your relationships, and prioritize your personal time.
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