In Shimon Edleman’s The Happiness of Pursuit, the Cornell psychology professor looks at the neuroscience of happiness. He finds that we are happiest when we are in pursuit of our goals, not necessarily after we reach them. Sure, we enjoy success when we have it, but “resting on our laurels” rarely leads to sustained happiness. It certainly doesn’t lead to sustained success.
As Dr. Edelman puts it, “When fishing for happiness, practice ‘catch and release.’” In other words, enjoy and savor your success for moment, and then move on to the next pursuit. Put another way, it’s “Focus on the journey and not the destination.” The pursuit of happiness and success will reward you but only if you keep at it, even after you reach your goals.
Think of the pursuit of happiness and success as similar to a climber’s quest to reach the summit of one of the highest mountains. Reaching the summit is literally the pinnacle of success – a goal achieved. But there is no happiness or satisfaction for the climber in simply remaining on the peak. Instead, after a pause to savor and commemorate the achievement, the climber will be off to the next quest.
We should all take the same approach as the climber. But we frequently do exactly the opposite. I like to say that “success is an early warning sign for failure.” Often, after a successful achievement, we feel as though we’ve done our bit and it’s time to relax. We know what works, assume (often erroneously) that it will keep working, and we quit trying new things and striving towards new goals.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t happily savor our successes. But if we dwell on them for too long or think we’ve “arrived”, both the happiness and success will slowly and sometimes quickly fade.
You can see this phenomenon in sports. Teams achieve success and reach their goals, but then lose their drive to do it again or try to repeat it by simply going through the same motions they went through the first time. Both of those reactions are fatal to sustained success and happiness
Nick Saban, who has led three college football teams to national championships judges his teams by how they handle success, not how they deal with failure: “Most people deal with failure pretty decently — it motivates them, they want to do better. But when they have success, they want to feel a little entitled and ‘I met my quota for this month, so I should get a little time off.’”
This summer, as Spain’s national soccer team pursued an unprecedented third consecutive major title, the team’s coach remarked on his challenge, “Success is debilitating.” He was referring to the increased expectations, decreased drive, and the need to find new and different ways to win – all byproducts of past success. To the credit of the team, they won that third trophy, perhaps because the coach was aware of the challenges posed by their own past achievements.
How can we deal with success in a way that leads to more of it? A study by psychologist Shmuel Ellis of Tel Aviv University points the way. Dr. Ellis studied companies of soldiers that followed their exercises – both successes and failures – with “post-mortem” discussions. It turns out that the most important question to ask after a success is the same one we ask after failure: “What went wrong?”
The study found that we learn the most from failure. We learn very little from our successes unless we look at what we might have done better even though we succeeded. The soldiers who learned the most from their exercises were the ones who examined the failures within their successes. Those who assumed they could simply repeat their success by doing the same thing did not do as well in later exercises.
Whether in business, sports, or the military, leaders who keep their teams “in pursuit,” following both success and failure, will achieve the most. And that pursuit – that “intentional activity” – is just as important for us as individuals. Anyone can choose kindness, gratitude, optimism, and to pursue their goals and dreams, and they will be happier for it. Many of us have suspected the same for some time. Now we’ve got the research to back it up.