Career Woman

What stops us achieving success and happiness at the same time?


When we think about success, we often think of somebody who has worked extremely hard and made many sacrifices. The notion that success comes from more work, not less, is hard-wired into our collective system. There are many stories of hard-working people succeeding after years of effort: sporting legends, entrepreneurs, inventors and leaders we admire. We learn that whoever works the hardest and longest wins.

Meanwhile, when we think about happiness, we think of somebody free of the desire to achieve. We imagine they live in a quiet seaside town, spend hours meditating, and simply enjoy what life has to offer.

In other words, we associate success with pain and happiness with letting go of ambition. For the majority of us, we rarely think of success and happiness as simultaneously possible. It feels like a choice we must make, a divide. If you want to be successful, then don’t think about happiness. If you want to be happy, then quit the achievement lane and look for an early retirement.

In reality, being happy, or learning to be happy, is key not only to our wellbeing but also to greater achievement. Decades of research have shown that happiness and success are not mutually exclusive. Dr Emma Seppala, Standford University researcher and professor in the field of happiness, found that happiness was not the result of achievement; rather, it was the precursor of any sustainable success. When we are happy, we achieve things more easily.

Our current situation is the result of our long-term behaviour and habits

Through years of research and working with successful high achievers, I have observed that what stops people achieving success and happiness is the way they go about achieving their goals.

I have discovered that a lot of our unhappiness is the result of our long-term behaviours and habits. These habits often brought us success early in life but derailed our happiness as we pursued even greater success.

These detrimental habits include:

  • Working tirelessly at the expense of sleep, relationships, our wellbeing and life balance.
  • Saying “yes” to everything to show how committed we are.
  • Pushing ourselves into the ground to manage an ever-expanding workload.
  • Prioritising other people’s goals over our own.

Typically, organisations and society reward these behaviours. We quickly discover they get us ahead in our careers, so we keep doing them, even when they don’t make us happy. When these behaviours become a daily habit, they inevitably wear us down, no matter how successful we are.

What underpins this pattern is the fact we don’t know how to achieve success in a healthy and optimal way. Most of us have only been taught how to work harder and longer to achieve success, not how to work better.

In 2008, I suffered a severe burnout in my first executive job as a Chief Marketing Officer for a global tech company. For years, the motto I followed was “no pain, no gain”. The result was that I was so burnt out, it took an emergency operation to force me to look at the way I worked and lived differently. My doctor explicitly told me that my life-threatening illness was the result of unhealthy working habits and stress.

In other words, many of us are high achievers but not necessarily high performers.

When we learn to achieve in an optimal way, we sustain our success for longer and we become much happier.

By the time clients come to see me in my coaching practice, they are often contemplating leaving their jobs, businesses, or quitting their careers altogether. However, only 20% of these clients need to make an external change. The majority can improve their situations dramatically simply by learning better working habits.

With the right tools and techniques, high achievers learn how to motivate themselves naturally without shouting “come on, you can do it”. They understand how to perform at their peak and restore their energy daily. And they learn how to re-design their work and daily agenda to get the best out of themselves.

By refining their working habits, many people see tremendous results within a short period of time. They take back control, feel energised and driven. They significantly cut back their working hours. They not only start to perform better at work, but they also feel much happier overall. They sleep soundly at night. And their relationships with their families improve as their psychological wellbeing recovers. For many, they also finally have the time to re-connect with their passion projects, bringing joy back into their lives. We don’t have to choose between success and happiness.

We all want to succeed. But we don’t have to sacrifice our happiness and wellbeing in the process. Learning how to achieve optimally makes the journey so much more enjoyable.

About Yu Dan Shi

Yu Dan Shi is a sought-after coach, mentor and speaker. After hitting rock bottom in 2008 while working as an executive for a Fortune 100 company, she was compelled to search for more meaningful ways to work and live. Today, Yu Dan helps other professionals and executives live an inspired life. She is also the author of the new book, Come Alive – Live a Life with More Meaning and Joy. Learn more

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