Does Success Really Make You Happy?

Here’s a question for you. What did the following three writers have in common?

a)      Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries

b)      J. M. Barrie, the writer of the Peter Pan children’s books

c)       A. A. Milne, who was the author of the Winnie the Pooh tales

Putting aside the facts that they were all men – and writers of course – what links all three? The answer, which I shall reveal later, is very much tied up with the subject of success.

I often ask people what they mean by ‘success’. Money? Fast cars? Cruising past remote islands in your own yacht? Yet, people seldom mention these things. Instead, they often cite being happy, having a rewarding job, spending a lot of time with the people they love.  In short, there is no one description of success; we all have very personal interpretations of what it means.

In their 2004 Harvard Business Review article, ‘Success That Lasts’, Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson proposed that real success can come from achievement in the following areas:

·         Happiness – feelings of pleasure or contentment about life;

·         Achievement – accomplishments that compare favourably against similar goals others have strived for;

·         Significance – the sense of making a positive impact on people we care about;

·         Legacy – a way to establish our values or accomplishments so as to help others find future success.

However, none of these in isolation will bring the pleasure of success; they argue that if we take away any one component, it will no longer feel like “real” success. After all, if career success caused us to be rich and yet we did not have the time to enjoy our riches, is that a successful outcome? Likewise, if concentrating on our power base prevented us from caring for our loved ones, would our success feel morally right?

But happiness isn’t necessarily success. Let’s go back to the three writers I started with. What did they have in common? All three came to resent the work that brought them to the attention of generations of readers.

Such was the public’s demand for Sherlock Holmes stories that people weren’t interested in anything else Conan Doyle wrote. The same became true for Barrie and Milne. What all three had created became literary millstones that forever hung around their necks. After all, how many books or plays by these authors, other than the works I cited earlier, do you know?

Bill Gates once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” As Conan Doyle, Barrie and Milne found out, sometimes the price of seductive success might be happiness.

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