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Success Vs Happiness – a battle to the death!

London city scape with a professional on the phone

Do you believe to be happy you need to be successful? Can you be happy if you are not successful? Can you be successful if you are not happy? Which is more important?

One of the things I love about coaching, whether it be career coaching, life coaching or executive coaching, is everyone is unique. There are definitely times where there are similarities and I do see common themes but, people are unique.

When it comes to happiness and success, how can you define or quantify either for one particular person? Positive psychology is sometimes called the science of happiness but there are so many competing theories, it is hard to see any real consensus.

If you have ever worked with a coach and you have wanted to become more successful or happy, no doubt you have been posed the question ‘What does happiness/success mean for you?’. I know I would not even think about defining it for a client. It is so subjective, it can change over time, it is vastly different for people that you just couldn’t dare define it for someone but spending time on getting clarity around what either mean for someone is really valuable work more often than not.

This work often leads to the question of how success and happiness are interrelated. This is a personal relationship between the two and will change for different people or even the same people over time. If you were more successful (whatever that means for you), would you be happier? If you were happier, would that lead to more success?

I don’t think there is a straight forward answer but one theme I have seen is a relentless pursuit of “success” leading to unhappiness. More often than not, success is seen as a major component of happiness thus it’s pursuit is critical to creating happiness.

As an example, I worked with a career coaching client who, by any standard, was a successful C-Suite professional. Clearly, any work done is confidential but my client, let’s call him Ben, is happy that I share the broad strokes.

Ben initially came to me as he felt his career had started to stagnate and wanted to figure out where to go from here. Ben was leading the Irish operation of a global firm and had been involved in senior roles since their initial set up here a few years back and had been continually given more responsibility on the back of successful delivery in a number of areas. This culminated in being in the position of Country Head – a role that had been a target and the desire to reach the role was a definite motivator.

Having been in this role for 18 months, a role that saw great results in terms of continued expansion, overseeing the development of new business units, recognition of a job well done, this feeling of stagnation had started to seep in – where to now? Moving to the US was not something Ben wanted to do to reach the next level so the two options, at the start of our engagement, seemed to be:

1. Keep pushing in the current role, there was a whole raft of initiatives that could be developed or brought to Ireland that would see remit continue to expand

2. Make a move – find the next big thing setting up here or offering room for significant growth and take on a completely new challenge

I was curious though, where was this feeling of stagnation coming from and, actually, what does stagnation feel like for him? Also, I shared that I noticed an almost frenetic pace when he spoke about what was possibly next. I was curious where this drive came from and what it was like to move at that pace.

As we worked through a number of sessions, there was a realisation. This continual drive for more, the push for the next level in his career, the constant achievement became so intrinsic to Ben as a person, it was like a drug that needed to be fuelled. This intrinsic need for constant achievement led to a belief that if this was removed, he was not successful. Importantly, for Ben, he would not be viewed as successful by peers, friends and family.

This was a stark realisation. He knew that he was more than his job yet career had taken over. The happiness that was derived from ‘success’ was fleeting. It was full of peaks after the next level was hit but quickly followed by an inner voice getting louder asking ‘what next’. This ‘what next’ lead to a laser focus on what he needed to do to achieve the next promotion. This laser focus on career was at the detriment of friends and, more importantly for him, family.

This led to the second stark realisation. By chasing the next promotion constantly because, for Ben, it defined how he was perceived by friends and family, he had actually missed out on really important moments with friends and family. This obsession with work, career, promotion meant that even when time was made with friends and family, he was not fully present. The lure of emails on his phone or the constant obsession with next filled his head with thoughts and plans to the point that he may as well not have been there.

At this point, the choices originally considered became less relevant. Career became a part of life and decisions around career had to be made in perspective and with a new sense of who he was and who he wanted to be. Ben figured that, for him, to be really happy, long term, his focus would need to broaden. Small changes started to make a big difference and as we entered our 2nd lockdown, investing time in the things that were really important had started to make a difference to how Ben saw himself and how he interacted with his management team.

Success for Ben (as he had defined it) led to happiness but this was a fleeting happiness. There was a realisation that there was more to life and somewhere along the way, Ben’s values were quietened by an inner voice that became progressively more front and centre. One that was focused on a narrow definition of success, in this case, specifically focused on career progression.

This change in perspective can be powerful and certainly was in this case. I am by no means saying that success can not bring happiness merely suggesting that it is not a straightforward relationship between the two. A lot will depend on who you define success and happiness.

This example may seem strange for ‘career coaching’ but the reality is that your job or your career exists within your wider system so is linked with you as a person. My focus as a coach is on you as a person which, I believe, brings about change at a deeper level which has a much wider impact than solely on career. In the above example, what started off as a decision about staying in his current role or moving on, ended up in reframing how Ben viewed himself and measured success and happiness. This impacted his career choices, how he led his executive team and his relationship with friends and family.

If you are interested in career coaching, life coaching or executive coaching, get in touch:

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