We’re often taught to chase success, but success is a measure that’s typically defined by others. Focusing on finding happiness may be the key to ultimate satisfaction.

The short answer is no, success doesn’t lead to happiness. Despite the myth that achieving goals will lead to contentment, doing what makes you happy can help you create a fulfilling life.

With that said, although success may not lead to happiness, experiencing happiness is one of the primary ways to achieve success.

Does success lead to happiness? That’s often what we’re taught. Work hard, earn good grades, get a raise, and you’ll feel satisfied.

But recent research suggests that it’s actually the other way around. Setting career goals can lead to stress and disappointment, while focusing on being happy first can help you succeed.

A groundbreaking 2021 study on nearly 1 million people suggests that those who feel optimistic and happy going into a job have more career success.

The research found that military personnel (from all ranks, roles, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds) who experienced more positive thoughts, feelings, and emotions received more professional accolades, awards, and promotions.

Of course, professional advancement is just one way to measure success.

“Success is often described as reaching a personal accomplishment or achievement, or even a purpose in life,” says Amanda Levinson, LPC, a cognitive behavioral therapist at the Neurofeedback and Counseling Center of Pennsylvania. “If you get a raise at work or if you graduate from college, that can make you happy. However, you don’t need achievements that are typically deemed successful to be happy.”

How we define happiness can be nuanced, too.

Finding happiness

Humans have been trying to unlock and dissect this elusive feeling for centuries. It was a key topic for the Greek philosopher Aristotle back in the fourth century BCE.

In psychology, happiness is related to subjective well-being and positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and hope.

Subjective well-being is essentially a measure of three things:

  1. Frequent positive thoughts, feelings, and emotions
  2. Infrequent negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, like anger, disgust, and shame
  3. Satisfaction with your physical health, relationships, and work

Happiness can come, in part, from hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure. But ultimately, research from 2021 shows that we derive happiness from a combination of pleasure-seeking endeavors, like sex and fun, and happiness-related qualities, including:

In another 2021 study, researchers interviewed nearly 1,000 Spanish residents to look at the relationship between happiness and quality of life.

They found that happiness is associated with a rich mix of factors, including:

  • income level
  • residential and job stability and satisfaction
  • family
  • trust
  • culture
  • safety

How does this differ from success?

When it comes to success, research is emerging that indicates ambitious goal setting can actually do more harm than good.

In a 2021 study on the mental health consequences of aiming for lofty and very specific goals, researchers found that participants who failed to reach those goals experienced negative impacts on their moods, self-esteem, and motivation.

“In some cases, pursuing success may lead to increased happiness, but it can also have a negative impact on overall well-being,” says Becca Smith, LPC, the clinical director at Basepoint Academy, a mental health treatment center for teens. “For example, the pressure to constantly strive for more success can lead to burnout and stress. Society tends to equate success with wealth and status, but true happiness and fulfillment can come from personal growth, relationships, and inner contentment.”

Happiness is the currency of positive psychology, which studies how we can use our strengths to make our lives more fulfilling. 2021 research shows us that happiness can be learned through cognitive and behavioral strategies, as well as contemplative practices, including:

1. Reflecting on what has gone well

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology showed that answering the question “What went well today?” every evening for 2 weeks improved mood, feelings of happiness, and even work-life balance.

2. Practicing gratitude

Practicing gratitude can also increase your mood and improve your mental health. The 2020 study mentioned above found similar results with study subjects who spent just 7 minutes writing a gratitude letter.

You may also consider expressing gratitude by:

3. Aiming for work-life balance

Achieving work-life balance is one of the best places to start in your journey toward happiness, says Levison. “A well-paying job does no good when you constantly work and do not have the time for social events, family, and friends. Not everyone will be the CEO of a large company or graduate with a doctorate, which is okay. You define your success.”

Try to be mindful of what is and isn’t in your control when seeking balance, and consider speaking to a manager or supervisor if you’re experiencing overwhelm.

4. Working toward progress, not perfection

“Strive to have a growth mindset and focus on progress rather than perfection,” advises Smith. “Happiness and success are ongoing journeys, not destinations that can be achieved once and for all. Stay open to learning and try to approach challenges with a positive attitude. Take it as an opportunity for personal growth and finding new ways to reach your goals.”

5. Practicing mindfulness

According to the 2021 research mentioned above, mindfulness can contribute to both happiness-related and pleasure-seeking well-being.

In an intense 9-month study using contemplative practices, participants engaged in deep reflection on issues that may hinder happiness, including anger, anxiety, and depression.

They also occasionally met for in-person intensive contemplative activities, such as mindful listening and mindful communication, and they practiced meditation.

The program was built on the idea that happiness is inextricably linked to both our understanding of the human mind and the development of inner equilibrium, a kinder and more open perspective of self, others, and the world.

Success and happiness are partners in an intricate dance. Sometimes success and achieving our goals can lead to happiness. Still, sometimes the stress and pressure of external and self-imposed expectations can lead to negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Research suggests that, particularly in the realm of work, finding happiness first can lead to success.

When you feel ready, try to practice self-compassion and define contentment and success for yourself.