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Success versus Happiness: Happiness is not dependent upon success

Updated on July 8, 2012
Family seeing me off to my first day of Kindergarten. The start of a successful life.
Family seeing me off to my first day of Kindergarten. The start of a successful life. | Source

When I was around 10 years old, my Dad asked me: “Tara, do you know what parents want for their children?”

I was pretty sure I knew this one: “To be successful.”

“No, honey. To be happy.”

His words gave me a lot of reassurance through high school and college, though it was difficult to take the principle to heart when the world is geared much more toward my first answer. And now, fifteen years after our exchange, I have to think that being happy is a more difficult task than being successful, partly because societal pressures convince us wrongly that success will lead to happiness.

Every writer at some point probably wants to take a shot at discussing the topic of happiness. After all, it’s evergreen content. So, this is my two-cents on the subject of success and happiness.

The Difference Between Success and Happiness

The word “successful” is attached to a very clear socially constructed image involving wealth, career achievement, a beautiful house, nice family, popularity…these things we all know the steps it takes to achieve. But happiness is a very internal state. And the internal landscape is a murkier, more difficult terrain to navigate.

So success means that you have achieved certain goals, or landmarks. Happiness can temporarily be brought on by success, and made to last if you continue to celebrate and be grateful for your achievements and good fortune.

I used to think that there was a difference between long-term happiness and short-term happiness, and that success must bring about long-term happiness.

But try this exercise:

Think of the last few times in your life you thought “I will be happy if I can just get this...” (new job, partner, move, affirmation you got from someone, athletic or artistic achievement, bonus, etc...)

For example, I can remember saying to myself “I will just be happy if I can get into this school. If I can live by the ocean. If I can just get this job I will be satisfied and not ask for anything else.” Then take a step back and look at your life. Do you realize: “Hey, I got just what I wanted.” Probably at the very moment of achieving your goal, you celebrated and felt happy. But for how long did you Celebrate? I usually forget that I ever had made that little prayer promising my eternal happiness, and realize with a shock that I find myself in that supposed paradise of assured self-worth, where I had expected to no longer feel wanting.

My brother's College Graduation. An instance where success clearly brought happiness on that day.
My brother's College Graduation. An instance where success clearly brought happiness on that day. | Source

The literature on finding happiness in a complicated world is almost too overwhelming to begin diving into. But one of my favorites is Pema Chodrin's "When Things Fall Apart." A Buddhist nun, she explains why we can't attach our identity or happiness to these ideas of successes or failures.

Ways the Success Culture Undermines Happiness

If you're fortunate, you were born into circumstances where you were encouraged to aim high and work hard, for the world is your oyster. While having high goals is certainly not a bad thing, if our sole motivation in life is to chase success (monetary, career, etc...) then we miss being in the present moment.


In order to experience happiness in the moment, without seeking that future success, one needs to quiet the internal talk. Amongst my friends - who are largely college graduates seeking a career, a life partner, a place to call home, and an identity for themselves – I see a lot of overthinking going on. It’s a repetitive bout of questioning and wondering that gets exhausting. Instead of being constructive and turning over new things, it’s a type of thinking that becomes a mantra: “I must do x, y, z…then I’ll know if…and I can plan to…then I’ll be happy.”

Inability to deal with Quiet.

The frenzy of modern life – our intense hobbies, our jobs and second jobs we give 110% to – makes it hard to know how to enjoy quiet and stillness.

Of course, it’s healthy to have a fair amount of activity. But where does our energy and motivation for life come from when we’re not constantly in motion? By learning to have more quiet in our lives we learn to be happy where we are. If your mind is only ever on goals and forward thinking, you’re missing your life and forgetting to celebrate and be grateful for the present moment.

How can we make our Successes add to our Happiness?

That brings me to my final point: we can make our successes a part of our everyday happiness when we learn to celebrate and really revel in our achievements. Remember to take that step back and appreciate all the hurdles you've already jumped, and the lessons you've learned.

As well as celebrating our achievements, we should feel gratitude. Gratitude instills a healthy sense of humility that things beyond our control made our successes possible.

Try this Exercise:

List 3 different things you're grateful for everyday. Amazingly, you won't run out, because as the days go by, you will continue to have positive experiences to be grateful for. "I'm grateful for having the chance to do dinner with my mother...I'm grateful the doctor said my Achilles tendon will heal soon...I'm grateful and proud that my boss praised my work yesterday..."

An Excellent TED Talk on Success and Happiness

Shawn Anchor, a happiness researcher, explains it from the other side: how being happy can actually fuel success. Being happy makes you a better student, worker, friend. In his research he had company employees do the exercise mentioned above of listing three things they were grateful for on a daily basis. His results concluded that even such a simple exercise improved the mood of employees and significantly improved company performance!

"Every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got into a good school and after you get into a better school, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we’re going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier…"


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    • Tara McNerney profile imageAUTHOR

      Tara McNerney 

      6 years ago from Washington, DC

      Whowas, you're totally right. Peace is the ultimate state beyond happiness. I think one of our biggest sources of unhappiness is the 'struggle' and the wondering 'why am i not happy, I should be happier" and feeling fearful of the next time we will be unhappy. Peace is an unmoving state that brings relief from all that!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      That is a truly great hub with a very important message.

      It took me about 40 years to figure that out! You are absolutely right that success in any sense does not equate with happiness. The state of happiness is something quite independent from any material or circumstantial factors.

      However, there is another state which can follow on from this realization , which is the state of peace. As simple observation and reflection shows us happiness comes and goes like the wind. If we accept that sometimes we will be more or less happy and sometimes we will be more or less unhappy (regardless of what we achieve) and maintain a simple acceptance of these changes, then we achieve a state of peace.

      Great hub. Upped and ticked.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 

      6 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Happiness is not, and should not be, goal dependent, because goal posts always move. Success can provide happy moments, but shouldn't be the ultimate and only aspect. Taking daily small steps to develop and maintain a positive mind is so important.

      A great TEDx find, one that many more people should see! Positive psychology is great for thinking (and moving) past merely average, and becoming happy.

    • Bedbugabscond profile image

      Melody Trent 

      6 years ago from United States

      I can not call myself a success, not yet at least. Two more years of college and maybe that will change. Nevertheless, I am very happy. In fact, I am happier than most people I know.

      I have a lot less income than most people I know, I have a ton of responsibilities. Work, school, kids a house... and I am happy. I have a lot of love in my life, which goes a lot farther than money.

      It will be nice to have money when I finish college and am in a profession; I just hope I never let success get in the way of happiness.

    • Tara McNerney profile imageAUTHOR

      Tara McNerney 

      6 years ago from Washington, DC

      I find everyone's comments so meaningful and touching. It really is a subject that we all question and wonder about our whole lives I think. Danette I can't wait to read your hub on gratitude! And Marie-Renee, I think you're right, I owe a lot of my perspective on life to my parents, who have always talked with me about the big life questions!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      6 years ago from Illinois

      Great hub and an important distinction to make about success and happiness. I wrote a hub about research that showed practicing gratitude can increase happiness. Voted up and interesting/

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Excellent Hub. I think you really hit the nail on the head with your assertion that "we can make our successes a part of our everyday happiness when we learn to celebrate and really revel in our achievements."

      That really is the key.

      We'll never be happy because we're successful, but we certainly can learn to be happy as we strive for success!

    • KrystalD profile image


      6 years ago from Los Angeles

      I think this is such an important lesson that each person learns. Happiness and success mean something different to each one of us. We all have to find our own path and I agree that learning to be still and reflect is quite important. Thank you for sharing your life experience.

    • Dr Pooja profile image

      Dr Pooja 

      6 years ago

      Most of us struggle to define the two words for whole of our life .Nice read!

      Shared !

    • Marie-Renee profile image


      6 years ago

      I have to agree with billybuc that this hub and topic is quite profound for one as young as you, but then I guess you have a good model in your parents/dad, as I see from your conversation with him at age 10. People often make the mistake of equating happiness with success and success with wealth. If that is the case then why are there people with a lot of money going back to the basics, like helping other people, to find their happiness? Great hub, voted up and across and thanks for sharing!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very profound for someone your age. It took me quite a long time to learn this valuable lesson. As I've written in several hubs, now I have simplified my life to the basics, chief of which is love, and I have never been happier.

      Well done young lady!...


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