Does Happiness Lead to Success? Part 1: Work

Let’s look at happiness from a different perspective.  Most people see happiness as a response to good things happening; a natural assumption to make, considering that when good things happen, it makes us happy.  But the evidence is piling up that happiness is also a cause of good things happening.  And by ‘good thing’, I don’t mean that people smile at you more because you’re cheerful, or some other pleasant but ultimately feebly benefit.  I mean a better career, more chance of finding love, better resistance to disease, and many other things.

How is happiness supposed to bring success?


Happiness is a signal that things are going well.  You’re safe, you have access to the resources you need, and you’re making progress towards your goals – life is good.  When things are good, it makes little sense to put walls around you and carefully guard everything you have (a hallmark of ‘negative’ emotions).  It’s a better time to expand, take on new goals and challenges.

Imagine you’re really rich.  A multi-millionnaire if you like.  Someone comes to you with a proposal for an investment.  It’ll cost you £10k, and it’s risky, but the return could be pretty good.  Do you do it?  Probably!  £10k is small change to you, you wouldn’t even notice the loss.  That’s an extreme example, but basically it’s a similar principle with happiness.  It encourages a person to expand, because the mind thinks opportunity is knocking.  Therefore happy people should get more success, because their emotional state essentially makes trying to succeed more appealing.

Now the researchers in this field aren’t saying that the direction of causality is only from happiness to success.  This wouldn’t even logically follow.  If you got some success, your resources and abundance would increase, which according to this theory is one of the reasons you get happy in the first place!  So if it’s true that happiness contributes to success, it can only be true that success contributes to happiness as well.  So you could get a kind of upward spiral (though other things, like adaptation, complicate the matter).

This series of posts is based on a huge analysis done in 2005 (1), see the footnotes for more information on the researchers.  They pulled together a huge amount of evidence together to see if this perspective on happiness holds up, and find that it does in three areas: work, love and relationships, and health.  Here we’ll look at work, but first let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about.

What do they mean by ‘happiness’?

The definition of happiness in this study was slightly different to the one normally used in studies (life satisfaction or subjective well-being, see what is happiness?).  The definition here, is the experience of frequent positive emotions, and less frequent (though not completely absent) negative emotions.

Why this different definition?  Because in this framework, it’s positive emotion that leads us to pursue new goals and opportunities in the moment – rather than how pleased we are with life generally.

So technically they are saying that success comes from from a happy state, not a happy disposition, but, a person with a happy disposition will be in a happy state more of the time.

What is success?

What do you think success is?  You might see success as lots of money and a family.  A man in the Mursi tribe of Ethiopia might see success as living to the age of thirty and marrying a woman with a 10″ ceramic plate in her lip.  So success means to do well relative to the goals valued by the society you’re in.

As this study was done in the US, the researchers decided to use work, love and health as the markers of success.


If you’re reading this from anywhere outside of a Western culture, let me assure you, we love to work!  Well, most people complain about work, but they still get up at 7am every morning to do it.  There’s very little I’d choose to get out of bed for at 7 in the morning, and yet I’ve woken up at that time and earlier, thousands of times, to go to work.

“Most people complain about work; but still get up at 7am every morning to do it!”

Work gets a bad rep, but it’s pretty normal human behaviour; even back in hunter/gatherer times we had to, well, hunt and gather.  We assume we did anyway, based on the tools and other goodies we’ve dug up.  I’ve never actually met a 40,000 year old person so I don’t really know for sure, but it’s a safe bet.  Work is just the name given to activities which allow people and groups to build their resources.  In modern life, we get tokens called ‘money’ in exchange for work, which we can exchange for the work of other people.  Work also (potentially) allows us to do something meaningful, and produce the things our society needs.

Plus, as we live in a meritocracy, the better we are at work, the more we produce for society, the more money tokens you get and the more good stuff we can exchange them for.  That’s one of the reasons we want to do well at work.  So are happy people more successful at work than their unhappy colleagues, generally speaking?

Happy Workers are Successful Workers


Here are some interesting findings about happiness in the workplace. Happier people:

  • Are more likely to get job interviews
  • Are more likely to receive positive evaluations once on the job
  • Are more productive
  • Handle managerial roles better
  • Have less ‘job burnout’
  • Tend to be more satisfied with their jobs
  • Earn more money

It seems clear that happiness and success go hand-in-hand at work.  But these are all correlational studies, and you’ve probably heard the catchphrase “correlation does not mean causality.”  In other words, they may go together but we don’t know which is the cause and which the effect, or whether both are an effect of something else altogether.

So more evidence is needed.  The next step is longitudinal evidence.  This is where something is measured at time 1, then something else (or the same thing) is measured at time 2.  In this case, the researchers looked for studies that measured happiness first, then symptoms of success months or years down the line.

They found a few.  For example. after a job interview, happier people are relatively more likely to get a second interview three months down the line.  In another study, people with more positive emotion at age 18, were more likely to be financially independent, and generally doing well in their career.  The researchers also found that doing well in their career made the participants happy too – so the link between happiness and career is a two-way street, as expected.

Happy people also earn more money tokens!  One study found that happier Australians were more likely to receive an income increase in the near future, compared to their less happy mates.  A similar result was found with a Russian study panel.  Yet another study found that students who were more cheerful in their first year of study were earning more money some 16 years later.

In other words, more happiness now = more money and better career later.

So, in terms of career and money, it seems that happiness is not just a consequence, but also a cause.  The idea that happiness causes success gets some support from the workplace.  Next time, we’ll look into love and relationships.

This series was based on the below paper published in Psychological Bulletin by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Deiner – three big names in positive psychology.  It was a huge effort, they analysed 225 studies with over 275,000 participants in total!  All three researchers have books out so if you like the stuff in these articles, stick their names into Amazon and see if there’s something you like!

All the points in this article came from the reference below.  If you’re looking for the original studies, get the pdf of the above reference and do a Ctrl+F (or Apple+F) to search for the finding you’re looking for.  Then find the study in their reference list.

Recommended Reading:


(1) Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Deiner, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131/6, 803–855


Roads and ‘Success’ by Toban Black, Happy Workers by fauxels.

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