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Happiness Comes Before Success

We all have goals, whether we write them down, speak them to others or keep them in our minds. And for most of us, along with these goals comes a promise of fulfillment, of happiness. There is an old belief that most of us have picked up along our journey that tells us this precisely: if I get that promotion, I will be happy; if I save enough and buy that car, I will be happy; if I find the right man/woman, it will all come together.

Yet the paradox found within this belief is that all too often "success” comes alone, and we simply change our destination. John Maxwell calls this the “destination disease.” We can chase our way through life seeking external goal after external goal only to wake up one day and realize we are lacking, unfulfilled, and too often, unhappy.

I recently led our sdg Book Club through The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. This book has deservingly made it to the core canon that is the center of my personal growth library. Achor’s work is a compilation of dozens of psychological and neuroscientific studies, in which he decisively “proves” that happiness precedes success!

Like any great work, The Happiness Advantage is full of golden nugget after golden nugget. With that being said, I will keep this post to some of the major ideas that resonate to me and have changed my world since first starting to study this work 10 months ago.

Measuring “Happiness”

The search for understanding the definition of happiness is a philosophically loaded pursuit. However, Achor explains that scientific advancement over the past 30 years has enabled our ability to measure the positive emotions and chemicals we experience. Positive psychologists have shown overwhelming correlation between the way people express their experience and their long-term satisfaction in life. Further, the latest advancements in technology have enabled scientists to physically monitor our brains’ releasing of chemicals that connote positive emotions and experiences.

Happy People: A happy person is hope-filled and optimistic. She is positive, and she has perpetual gratitude in most areas in her life. She accepts the hardships of life with realism, yet chooses to view them as temporary. She embraces the fortunes of life with anticipation and expectation, and is scanning the world daily for “ordinary” things to be grateful for.

Unhappy People: A negative person who is pessimistic and anticipates a less hope-filled future, and these characteristics support a very consistent reporting of unhappy experience. He awaits the next misfortune in life with anticipation. When he catches a break he often limits his enjoyment because to him, such fortune is temporary and out of the norm to which he has chosen to give his attention to. His lens for viewing the world is plagued with a cloud of hopeless expectation.

Happiness Fuels “Success”

Again, we can certainly open Pandora’s philosophical box and argue what success is and what it is not, and never come to a consensus on an exact definition. Yet, I believe we can talk around success with accuracy for the purpose of this discussion.

In a very thorough fashion, Achor shows that “cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upward"(4). Here are some of my favorite highlights:

1. Success can = long and healthy lives: He explains an incredible study done on nuns over multiple decades, which overwhelmingly shows that those with an optimistic and positive explanatory style lived an average of 7 years longer than those with a negative mindset.

2. Success can = high productivity: Positive psychologists have found that the greatest predictor of happiness is whether or not we choose to invest in and strengthen a strong social support network. With this, Achor explains a study that shows that time spent with loved one’s has a direct correlation to an increase in productivity and focus.

3. Success can = having fun at your work:  We hear of report after report of corporate cultures like Yahoo, Google, or Virgin having unique and fun work environments. These organizations have built success around being creative and cutting edge, and they are able to fuel their innovation by committing to ensure that their people have FUN!

4. Success can = $$$: For many this is obvious, but too often money is confused as being the ONLY sign of “success.” Regardless of this valid concern, it is important for our well-being to be rewarded financially and have the ability to provide life necessities for ourselves and our families. One 19-year study was done with college students that showed that those with positive explanatory styles earned significantly more than their more negative counterparts.

5. Success can = innovation and creation: In the world of the 21st century knowledge worker, most understand the need for innovation and the need for a wider and more creative idea base to fuel this innovation. Achor describe a study that showed that people "primed" with positive thoughts could think of "a larger and wider array of thoughts and ideas than individuals who have been primed to feel either anxiety or anger.”

I believe that success is subjective to each person, but with each definition we can find very similar themes like those above. Regardless, Achor makes a very compelling case that happiness leads to successful actions and tendencies.

Happiness is a Choice

To conclude this overview, it is important to emphasize that happiness is an inside job. It is very easy to blame our moods and attitudes on external factors. It is also easy to revert into the B.F. Skinner blaming of our childhood or biology and believe that some are born doomed to live a negative existence. Achor debunks such deterministic notions of one’s ability or inability to be happy.

In short, he argues that we all have a "happiness baseline" at which we start. Yes, some are given the fortune of having an instinctively positive disposition from a very young age. Some have insanely positive mothers who showed you no other way (like I did). However, we can all take actions to raising our current happiness baseline. I will stop referencing studies at this point, but know that the evidence is clear: we can raise or lower our happiness baseline and happiness is a choice!

So, how do we increase our happiness baseline and start to reap the rewards?

"(S)cientists have found (the following) to be most crucial to human happiness...pursuing meaningful life goals, scanning the world for opportunities, cultivating an optimistic and grateful mindset, and holding on to rich social relationships." (50) And commitments to choosing one of the following 2-minute habits can literally transform our realities. I am personally on day 276 of writing in my gratitude journal, along with a 2 to 15 minute daily meditation, and I can say with absolute conviction that my world has completely shifted for the better. This is a pretty convenient byproduct for a salesman who deals with fear, disappointment, and rejection on a daily basis!


Let’s retrain your brain to devote its resources to scanning the world for positive things going on in your life. Adopt a positive habit to rewire your brain for greater levels of happiness.


Pick one of the five research-based positive habits and try it out each day for the next 21 days:

  1. Write down three unique things you’re grateful for and explain why you feel that way.
  2. For two minutes, write down every detail you remember about one meaningful experience from the past 24 hours.
  3. Exercise for 10 minutes a day.
  4. Watch your breath go in and out for two minutes (meditate).
  5. Write one positive email to someone you care about praising or thanking them.


Since I am writing for our corporate sdg Blog, I feel compelled to conclude with a first-hand example of the Happiness Advantage at work. Here at sdg we have three core values that all focus on people. Within these values we are committed to giving the best employee experience we can. That is our value proposition. We have incredible people, and we work to help them grow, to help them find connection through our sdg community, and to help them have fun with the work they do. And I would say that the six-time awarding of being a “Best Place to Work” is the processor to our consecutive awards for being a five-time fastest growing private company in Minnesota. This is just another example of happiness leading to growth and success.

Make the choice, be happy, and find your own continued success!