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Is happiness the key to success?

April 9, 2021 - 21 min read

Shawn Achor standing

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In pursuit of happiness

Is happiness the end goal?

Stress, unhappiness, and work

Happiness as a choice and shifting habits

Helping your teams foster happiness

Are success and happiness connected?

Often, the way we think of success is in terms of how it relates to our career or financial situation. Many of us believe that we’d be happier if we just had more money or a better job.

But, science shows that this isn’t always the case. 

Fostering happiness in our lives may actually be what leads us to success, not the other way around. 

As we try to pin our happiness to one or two areas of our lives, joy can feel like a moving target. Despite this, 63% of adults around the world still report feeling happy. So, what’s the secret to getting and staying happy?


Luckily, leading positive psychology researcher Shawn Achor dove into our biggest questions on happiness. 

Some of these questions include: 

  • What is the connection between success and happiness? 
  • How does happiness impact our output? 
  • What can managers do to make their teammates happier?

Achor has dedicated his life to studying the relationship between success and happiness. This New York Times best-selling author has helped thousands of individuals and organizations worldwide find the power in positive thinking through his books, coaching, and TED talk, which has been viewed over 23 million times. 

Achor is also a member of our Science Board here at BetterUp.

In pursuit of happiness

While it may feel like the search for happiness is a new phenomenon, it’s a tale as old as time. 

People have wondered about happiness for centuries, even if the recent resurgence of interest often focuses on the relationship between career success and happiness.

Researchers used to believe happiness was at least half genetic, but people are starting to discover how someone’s happiness levels can change at any point. 

We’re dispelling the myth that you can be born a “happy person,” and instead focusing on how we can all become happier people. 

Many factors contribute to someone’s experience of happiness, but most of these factors represent daily choices. 

With slight mindset and habit shifts, our happiness experience could be vastly different.

Visual representation of factors researchers found impact happiness
(Image Source)

We asked Achor what he’s discovered in his extensive happiness research and how meaning plays into our relationship to happiness.

BetterUp: What made you decide to go into this field of research? Was it a desire to find meaning (and happiness) in your work?

Shawn Achor: I started my research at Harvard Divinity School. There, I studied Christian and Buddhist ethics, looking at how our beliefs shape our actions in the world. When people in the psychology department said [they] could now quantify changes in meaning, joy, and optimism, I was hooked. 

I went on to work in 50 countries and with organizations [like] NASA, the NFL, and the White House. Every day, we’re learning more about how to create and sustain positive change.

BU: Where does happiness stem from, and why do we care about it so much today? It seems that no one used to talk about the importance of being happy.

SA: Actually, the opposite is true. If you look at the texts that Google [has] digitized, people used to talk about happiness a lot more than they do [now]. 

We need to find ways to [talk about living a happy life everywhere]: not only in the [boardroom] but with soldiers going off to war and children sitting in cancer wards.

Note: Despite a recent uptick in talking about happiness, we still write about happiness much less than people did at the beginning of the 1900s. 

BU: Is unhappiness a generational problem?

SA: We see people struggling with unhappiness across the entire spectrum of age. But I think the younger generation [reminds] us that we should demand to connect our daily work with personal well-being. 

Note: That’s an important reminder, as 55% of happy people globally say personal well-being and health is the greatest contributor to their happiness.

My work shows that we can change someone’s levels of optimism at any point in their life.

BU: What is the relationship between happiness and optimism? Are some of us just predisposed to being more optimistic?

SA: Optimism highly correlates with happiness. It is hard to create happiness if your brain is continually creating escape routes or planning for the worst. 

So yes, genetically speaking, I would guess that some people are more predisposed toward optimism. [However,] my work shows that we can change someone’s [optimism level] at any point in their life. 

Note: At its core, optimism is the hopeful expectation for happiness or success in the future. Happiness is a series of personal choices connected to a person’s habits and mindset, so even slight changes can cause a dramatic shift in optimism over time.

3 daily exercises to cultivate happiness on your team

  1. Acknowledge one teammate every day for a job well done.
  2. Take a 2-minute break to meditate every day. Just 2 minutes can help reduce stress and increase awareness.
  3. Say or write 3 things you're grateful for today. Do this every day.

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Is happiness the end goal?

Even if we can impact our happiness at any time, is happiness really the end goal? Do we need to be happy to live successful lives? 

When we have priorities like work, family, and friendship, sometimes happiness unconsciously drops to the bottom of our priority list. 

However, we know that these factors directly contribute to our overall experience of joy, too. Seeing the meaning and personal value behind our priorities can help shift our mindsets toward happiness.

Infographic showing that the top five sources of happiness in 2020 were health, relationship with a partner, children, feeling like life has meaning, and living conditions, as well as the bottom five sources of happiness.

(Image Source)

Pinning our happiness to any single factor usually doesn’t get us closer to a life that’s well-lived and enjoyed. That’s why success alone won’t make us happy. 

But, redefining how we look at success and finding more meaning in our experiences can help us shift our baseline happiness levels and feel more satisfied.

BU: Is the average person’s baseline somewhere between happy and unhappy? Can you permanently shift your happiness baseline?

SA: Researchers go back and forth on the average baseline, but the [critical] part of the story is that our baseline can change at any time. We are not just our genes and environment. 

Note: Many factors impact how happy we feel at any given time, and you always have the control to shift your own happiness baseline.

BU: What effect does finding meaning at work have on your overall happiness?

SA: If we create happiness in [most] of our conscious hours — like the 8 to 14 hours a day we spend working — we’re far more likely to feel satisfied with our lives in general. 

Note: Identifying meaning throughout your day through meditation, gratitude, and appreciating people around you can greatly impact how you experience success and happiness in your workday.

BU: Should happiness be our end goal?

SA: Happiness is both a means and an end. When [we think positively, we're] better at solving world problems as well as personal ones. But, more importantly, the pursuit of happiness should make us lose our fear of sadness. 

When we know we can create happiness and meaning in our life by changing our habits and mindset, [we're] more likely and able to face the things that make us sad in the world. 

It is also important for people to finally understand that the opposite of happiness is not sadness. The opposite of happiness is apathy.

BU: Can unhappy people be successful?

SA: This depends on our definition of success. If success is a life well lived and enjoyed, then no. But if success is purely monetary or based upon our position, then I know a lot of successful people who are unhappy. You probably do, too.

Stress, unhappiness, and work

Part of our cultural refocusing on success and happiness comes from experiencing higher stress levels. 

Stress is the leading negative factor that impacts happiness levels, which inspires a growing interest in work/life balance. 

Since stress decreases life satisfaction and stress is often experienced at work, some people believe that career success could be the key to their happiness.

Bar graph showing that people who report substantial stress have much lower life satisfaction than those with minimal or average perceived stress.

(Image Source)

But, stress doesn’t need to have this negative impact on our lives. Stress usually impacts us negatively because we can’t see the meaning or purpose behind our worries.

If the stress we experience relates to our goals and dreams, it can be easier to manage. Refocusing on our goals can help us achieve the success we want without compromising our happiness to get there. 

BU: Is there a relationship between the rise of stress and unhappiness at work? How can we control the world around us, or can we?

SA: Stress does not need to cause unhappiness. Stress without meaning, coupled with lack of sleep and lack of social connection, definitely creates unhappiness. 

The key is to acknowledge our stress, reconnect to the meaning, and channel our emotional response back toward that original goal.

BU: How can managers help people think about success differently? Is the happiness of my employees my responsibility?

SA: We need to help managers to realize that the best way to see the best parts of their team and to manage their resources effectively is to [make sure] that the team is running at their optimal level — which means their brains must be at positive. 

When our brains are not ‘at positive’, we’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode, using the less advanced parts of our brain to make decisions. When we’re ‘at positive’, we’re better able to empathize, generate creative ideas, and explore possibilities without fear.

Happiness is a personal choice, but also an interconnected one. [We're] continually changing other people and influencing their ability to choose happiness. 

It is my responsibility not only to [make sure] that I’m living out that choice, but that I am [fostering it in others, too]. It’s easier for me to choose happiness when I’ve helped other people choose it around me as well.

BU: What role does distraction play in happiness, and how do we manage distractions in our increasingly connected world? What if I have to be on email all day?

SA: Research coming out of Harvard [shows] that distraction definitely gets in the way of our happiness. No one has to be on email every second of the day. 

So when you can step away from your email, do so fully. Our brains need cognitive breaks [to] be effective at responding to those emails. 

I think over the next decade, we’ll figure out the problem that we created with email, which is we have finite time, but everyone’s attentional resources are fully tapped.

BU: Is happiness contagious?

SA: Incredibly so. But so is negativity. 

We tend to feed off each other’s emotions (in psychology this [is called] emotional contagion). [The key] is to be more verbally and nonverbally expressive of your optimism so that others on your team can benefit from it and feed it back to you.

 Happiness as a choice and shifting habits

We don’t have to look far to find happiness, but we do have to practice looking. 

The habit of happiness calls for focus and attention on developing a positive attitude. When we have a pattern of focusing on negativity, it can be tough to see the joy in our lives right now.

Positive change comes from building positive habits. But, developing those habits doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Even a few minutes a day spent meditating can shift your mindset from overwhelmed to calm.

Graph showing how the compound effect works, where gradual choices and habits over time can lead to results like better income, health, relationships, happiness, and success.

(Image Source)

These simple shifts have a compounding effect, leading to a happier and more fulfilling life. As your team starts seeing your shifts, your example can help them find success and happiness at work, too. 

BU: How can we bias ourselves toward happiness and not discontent?

SA: Scientifically, happiness is a choice about where we devote our mental resources. We can bias ourselves toward happiness by shifting our habits in daily patterns [to] allocate those resources more effectively, [so] the human brain [can work] at its optimal level.

I’m continually surprised at how the smallest interventions can have the biggest effect. Simply saying three things you’re grateful for around the dinner table with your family will not only transform your family, but generations to come.

Try these 2 other exercises to help bias yourself toward happiness:

  1. Praise one teammate every day for a job well done. This could take the form of a short email or a “great job on that project” [acknowledgment] as you pass them in the office.
  2. Try taking a 2-minute break to meditate every day. Breathe deeply to cultivate a sense of calm, then get back to that project you were working on. By going from multitasking to single-tasking, you train your brain to feel less threatened and overwhelmed.

BU: Are we trying to achieve too much, and is that making us unhappy?

SA: There are [many] reasons why we see increased rates of depression, eating disorders, and discontent. 

I don’t think that ambition is the problem, but along with our desire to achieve comes missteps. Often, we sacrifice sleep, social connection, and periods of rejuvenation [to] increase our success. But, this [hurts] not only our well-being, but our ability to achieve, too.

BU: How can we find happiness, or even just stay motivated, when we’re dealing with a major stressor in our personal life?

SA: Embedded within every stress is meaning. The best way to cope with stress is not to panic and flee from it, but to remember why there’s meaning involved.

An inbox full of spam causes no stress because there’s no meaning behind it. But when your inbox is full of leads, you need to get back to building your business or there’s both stress and meaning in your life. 

We need to reconnect to the [purpose] in our lives so that stress does not appear to be a threat to our happiness.

BU: It is so hard to create new habits. How do you recommend making happiness an everyday habit?

SA: I don’t think you can make happiness a habit, but I [believe] you can create happiness by building habits that are the foundational blocks of happiness, such as practicing gratitude [daily], connecting with your social support network, doing random acts of kindness consciously, and meditating.

[At work], the best way to create change is to model it. Your team will never strive for success unless they see you trying for that. 

Happiness can also be connected to motivation. If your team is disengaged from your culture or company mission, it will be difficult for them to find success and happiness. 

Start by reminding people that happiness leads to success, not the other way around. Encourage your teammates to find meaning in their work, even when they haven’t yet achieved their big milestones.

Helping your teams foster happiness

Habit change can feel challenging, but you’re just a few small patterns away from seeing more happiness and success in your own life. What if you could make that a reality for your team, too?

Coaching is a powerful tool that can help your employees shift their habits and find more success and happiness at work. 

Are you ready to see what coaching can do for your team? Help create that transformation in your organization and start working with a BetterUp coach today!

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Published April 9, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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