We’ve all heard the saying, “success is the key to happiness”. But what happens when we achieve that success, only to feel empty, unfulfilled, and even downright miserable?
It’s a phenomenon that’s becoming increasingly common – we work hard to climb the corporate ladder or attain some other measure of success, only to find that it doesn’t bring us the happiness we were hoping for.
In contrast, focusing on intrinsic sources of self-esteem and satisfaction, such as personal growth and meaningful relationships, can lead to greater happiness and fulfilment.
Let’s unpack how pursuing success at all costs could harm your wellbeing, relationships, and ability to find true satisfaction.
Busting the ‘girl boss’ myth: the toll of relentlessly chasing success
Success is often viewed as the ultimate goal in our fast-paced and competitive social environment.
We are constantly bombarded with messages telling us we must be successful in our careers, relationships, and personal lives to be happy and fulfilled. As a result, many become addicted to pursuing success, chasing external validation through their work, appearance, and possessions.
For many women, this pressure to succeed can be particularly intense. We are expected to balance demanding careers with family responsibilities, all while looking perfectly put together and maintaining an active social life. But at what cost?
Research has shown a disturbing correlation between perfectionism, relentless pursuit of success, and adverse mental health outcomes. These include higher levels of burnout, anxiety, and depression.
Emma Gannon’s thought-provoking book The Success Myth offers a personal perspective on this phenomenon. Gannon candidly shares her experiences, highlighting how her greatest accomplishments often left her feeling unfulfilled and empty.
In her book and newsletter, Gannon poignantly captures the modern-day struggle: the ever-increasing expectations placed on individuals to excel in every facet of life.
The pressure to excel in careers, maintain physical fitness, stay informed, foster relationships, and make a meaningful impact is overwhelming. The result is a pervasive sense of exhaustion.
“This book is very personal in places, for example, how my biggest achievements left me feeling the most empty — but at the same time the book isn’t really about me. It’s about the collective sea-change post-pandemic, our changing appetite for success and the realisation that the idea that we will one day ‘arrive’ is actually a big lie,” Gannon said in a recent newsletter.
Is enjoying the process more important than the outcome?
Countless times throughout my life, I have been so caught up in pursuing a goal that I lost sight of everything else.
I lost relationships thanks to my obsession with work, took my recreational activities so seriously that they ceased being fun, and almost destroyed my mental and physical health in pursuing the body I thought would finally cure my self-esteem issues.
The more obsessively I chased accomplishment, the more burnt out, frustrated, and unwell I became. My sole focus was collecting achievements to prove I was ‘good enough’.
Happiness and satisfaction become increasingly elusive when not embodied in the present moment. Life can quickly become a performance for others to perceive and judge rather than something to deeply immerse yourself in experiencing.
Mo Gawdat is an Egyptian entrepreneur, former chief business officer for Google X, and writer of the book Solve for Happy.
Gawdat explains that the secret to sustainable contentment with life is to close the gap between our expectations and reality. This dynamic plays out in many people’s quests for success.
We set an ambitious goal, find purpose in our daily pursuit, and then feel momentarily happy and satisfied when we achieve it. However, this is often quickly followed by a hollow, empty sensation when we realise it didn’t change how we truly feel about ourselves.
Gawdat’s ideas echo those of spirituality guru Eckhart Tolle, who advocates for letting go of attachment to outcomes and surrendering to the present moment to transcend unnecessary suffering and find inner peace.
Accepting what is and releasing expectations doesn’t mean becoming complacent or never striving towards goals. On the contrary, releasing expectations about the outcomes of our efforts can help us find joy in the process itself, helping us access a flow state where we enjoy our efforts for what they are, not just as a means to an illusory ‘end’.
How to stop chasing success and find contentment
When you feel tempted to seek external sources of validation, remember that addiction to success can lead to chronic stress, weaken our immune system, and make us more susceptible to illness.
Success addiction can also lead to unhealthy behaviours such as stress management, like smoking and drinking alcohol, and lead to social isolation.
How do we find contentment and acceptance of life while staying motivated to keep moving forward authentically? How can we create a life of meaning and peace without stagnating or feeling like our life has little meaning or purpose?
The first step is remembering that a meaningful life involves more than achieving perfection or always being busy. It’s about finding balance and living in the present moment. It’s about being kind to yourself and others and finding joy in the simple things. It’s about setting meaningful goals and working towards them without sacrificing your health or happiness. It’s about being grateful for what you have and letting go of the things you cannot control.
If you are feeling unfulfilled or stressed, take some time to reflect on what is important to you. What are your values? What makes you happy? Once you understand what you want from life, you can start making changes to help you achieve your goals.
It can also be about reframing your goals and finding ways for the process to be enjoyable and empowering rather than simply a means to an end that we presume will create a more profound sense of positive self-worth.
With this approach, we can separate our intrinsic self-worth from our accomplishments and understand that our human value doesn’t change alongside the fluctuating nature of life, success, and happiness.
Vulnerability and connection are the best antidotes to the ego’s tendency to take over. Often, chasing accomplishments is a misguided attempt to earn the approval or admiration of others, which can be mistaken for connection.
True love and profound connection do not hinge on external markers of success or the ever-changing tides of life. They are rooted in vulnerability, mutual respect, and unwavering support. When we recognise the intrinsic human worth that remains steadfast amidst life’s fluctuations, we free ourselves from the illusion that our value depends on our achievements.
Authentic connection transcends the superficial, reminding us that the unwavering bond built on trust, empathy, and unconditional acceptance nourishes our souls.
In embracing this deeper understanding, we find lasting fulfilment and the profound joy of genuine human connection.