Is Happiness Really a Key to Business Success?

Does being a happier person really positively influence business success? Despite the evidence many entrepreneurs still think this is pie in the sky thinking. Instead, we’ve been taught to believe that “hard work” — which implicitly suggests long, stressful hours and personal strain — is the path to success. In fact, people often parade the evidence of their stresses and overwork like professional badges of honor.  I know because I’ve been there. Stress was once my middle name and I thought it made me seem important, valued, indispensable.

Of course dedication and diligence are essential to producing results and subsequently success. But do the side effects of “hard work” have to be so exacting? And does the achievement of business results at the expense of personal fulfillment actually equate to success?

Perhaps it would be helpful to first establish a better definition of success. Here are some typical responses when I put a poll on Facebook:

“Success is being what you love”

“Success is happiness”

“Success is realizing the purpose that you’ve been put here for and actualizing it”

“Success is contribution, fun, purpose and meaning”

“Success is loving and being loved, inspiring others, being happy and making others happy. Making a positive difference to yours and other people’s lives.”

Why is it then that while we consciously define success in terms like those above, we still persist in blindly pursuing a definition of success that demands such enormous personal sacrifice in an insatiable pursuit of more money, recognition and acclaim?

The problem lies in the concept of possession. It is deeply ingrained in our culture that things — material possessions, titles, goals — define who we are and our value within society.  We associate success to wealth or status but don’t widely discuss the fact that once we achieve these things, our level of happiness does not necessarily rise.

In fact, increased wealth, acclaim and responsibility routinely have the opposite effect. We lose invaluable sleep, weaken relationships, shortchange our families, snub friends, and forgo outside pursuits all for our careers or businesses. Meanwhile, the accomplishments and trappings of “success” don’t bring an increased sense of fulfillment. Once we hit seven figures, we want eight. We get eight and we want ten. And at the end of that road, we realize we aren’t any happier.

This phenomenon of decreasing returns is the result of adaptation. Adaptation, as it applies to happiness, involves our, “tendency to form judgments…relative to a ‘neutral’ level defined by our prior experience”* (Myers). A great example of this sort of adaptation can be found in the expectations of Jim Clark, founder of Netscape:

Before Silicon Graphics, Clark said a fortune of $10 million would make him happy; before Netscape, $100 million; before Healtheon, a billion; now, he told [author Michael] Lewis, “Once I have more money than Larry Ellison, I’ll be satisfied.” Ellison, the founder of the software company Oracle, is worth $13 billion **(Kasser).

So why do we believe this, that the continual pursuit of achievement will eventually bring us happiness? I believe a big part of the problem lies in advertising and its role in setting the standards by which we judge the quality of our lives.

By nature, advertising plays on our desire for happiness by strongly implying that it can be achieved through material means. Commercials show people happier as a result of having the right clothing, car, skin, membership to clubs or shampoo.  The advertising world is so effective and convincing in this effort that we re-route our paths to happiness from intangible pursuits such as positive relationships, faith, and sense of well-being to material goods, wealth and artificial goals.

One of the best examples of the power of advertising, and how far a single advertising meme can reach, can be found in DeBeers’ 1939 advertising campaign***** for wedding engagement rings. The intent of this campaign was (unsurprisingly)  to “channel American spending toward larger and more expensive diamonds.” Prior to 1939 diamonds did not have the cache that they have today. In fact they were not that rare and were fairly prolific.*

In the advertising campaign young men were targeted with ads suggesting that diamonds were the only token of true love and women targeted with the concept that no courtship was complete without a sparkling diamond*****.  Importantly, these ads were designed to drive home the point that the amount a man spent on an engagement diamond was proportional to his love for his potential wife.

Unsurprisingly, the ads worked, the social norm is now that a diamond is the gem to buy to express your love. It only takes a quick Google search for engagement rings to see the evidence of their success.

What’s worse, we all know that this type of manipulation is going on, that it’s powerful, and still we continue to accept the status quo.  Confession time: As I type these words, relating the DeBeers’ story to you, I have to admit that my own instinctive feeling is, “If a man buys me a big diamond, he must really love me.”  That’s how powerful these associations are, how effectively advertising can lead us down the road to materialism.

And according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow)*** this road is a dead end: Dependence on material goods for one’s happiness is futile. Materialistic people are more likely to be depressed (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003)***.

Robert Arkin, PhD, has proved that one having a materialistic worldview is linked to “lower levels of life satisfaction” Further studies empirically link self-doubt with materialism ****(Beckmann)

So clearly, (and with apologies to the Beatles), money can’t buy us love. We know it through our self-stated definitions of happiness. We know it because the scientists tell us so. We know that advertisers are trying to play with our wiring. We know what’s going on. So how can we escape the trap?

Start by approaching your business growth and life goals with a process that will bring fulfillment rather than contribute to the feeling that nothing is ever good enough. Here are four ideas to help get you started:

  1. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, re-examine your day-to-day work. If you don’t like what you are doing, change that. If you are not enjoying how you are making money, your path will be painful. They key is to love what you are doing and have your work be something you are passionate about. Do what you love and the money will come.
  2. Track your moments of being in the zone. Spend a week tracking the moments when you lose track of time because you are so engaged in what you are doing. What are you doing? What is happening? Connect these dots and see what it is that really makes your heart sing. Look at the facts versus operating on what is ingrained in you. You may find that what you enjoy most does not involve running a large organization, therefore building that would not be worth your while, even if it meant making a million dollars.
  3. When you think that being a millionaire or a billionaire will solve all your problems, stop and take a breath. Then take out a pen or your computer and write down how being rich would change your life.  I am willing to bet you write something along the lines of, “I would worry less”,  “I would have more time”,  “I can take trips to anywhere I want”, or the like. What are the end results of those changes? Freedom? Pleasure? Fun? Can you not get those in your life right now? You don’t need lots of money to find the fulfillment you’re really seeking. Figure out what it is that you most enjoy about those things and start adding them into your life. You can create a life that has all of that so that you don’t have to make a million to have it.
  4. Being motivated by your mission and enjoying your day-to-day work WILL make you earn more money and attract opportunities. The more joyful you are the more people will want to be around you. Try it yourself and see the difference. Spend a week being focused on the goal of being joyful in your work, and do what you need to do to be joyful. Get enough sleep, work out and eat well. Most likely you will find that you become more engaged in the process and less obsessed with the outcome, and the quality of your work and interactions will improve.

Try it and let me know what you discover. I have been interviewing business owners who have seen business growth increase as a result of focusing on more joy in their lives and decreasing the stress. I am collecting evidence to continue to inspire an alternative approach to business growth. The worst thing that could happen is that you will enjoy life more and isn’t that the point?

*Kasser, Tim. (2002). The High Price of Materialism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

**Myers, David G. (2004). Psychology [seventh edition]. New York: Worth Publishers.

***Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly.(2003). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Viking Press.

****Beckmann, Lacey. (2002). “Man’s Best Friend?” [Electronic Version]. Psychology Today, Nov/Dec 2002.

*****Birth of a Legend by Barry Kaplan

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Elisa F.
Elisa F.1 years ago

Thanks for the article :)

Adam C.
Adam C.3 years ago

Love this article - it's awesome to see people giving PRACTICAL steps to happiness! I agree that material goals are nowhere near as satisfying as just appreciating the experience of what you are doing, right NOW. And if you're not happy what you're doing right now, then right NOW is the time to start changing the necessary parts of your life to start appreciating them! Hope to see more articles like this in future, thanks again for your positive influence in the world!

Sandi C.
Sandi C.3 years ago


Laura Garnett
Laura Garnett3 years ago

Thank you all for your compliments.
Larry, I appreciate your sentiments and I think this comes down to choice and truly knowing what makes you fulfilled. If you have a job that pays less and that you love, then you create a lifestyle that meets what you earn. Money does not equate happiness and love of work is far more rewarding than a huge paycheck. However if you love what you do but are not compensated for the life that you want, then there will be a disconnect. I believe that if you tap into your zone of genius that you can make money using it. That is what I help my clients do. Not everyone is cut out or desires to run their own business but if you have the passion then I can show you the way. Or if you know you are meant for a more structured career i.e. corporate world then there are ways to create your dream job within the confines of that structure. I think that the belief that this is not possible is what prevents it from being more common. I welcome your thoughts its a great debate!

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers3 years ago

It is bound to help.

Larry Lawton
Larry Lawton3 years ago

** Here is what was cut from my comment off by the silly text limit with no warning. **

I have always felt that the most spiritually rewarding jobs were the worst compensated, and the most soul-destroying jobs are often the best compensated. (It is quite possible to have a job that provides neither money nor love. But I don't know of many types of work that provide both money and love.)


Larry Lawton
Larry Lawton3 years ago

I totally agree with the point of the essay. However, it is simply not the case, for everyone, that doing what you love means the money will come. That is only true if what you love doing is of great value to other people, preferably other people who have money!

In my case, what I have always loved is simple activities like gardening and landscaping -- but not at the command of a Master -- that takes all the joy out of it for me. So I do these things, but the money does not come. It never did. I had to find a job that offered a compromise between offering a useful service (for which people were willing to pay me adequately) and allowing me to do work that I found interesting, with minimal arbitrary rules and meddling. (I eventually did find such work, but it was far from easy, and it was not my love, either. It was acceptable. But I did it for the money, not for the love of the work.)

I know there are plenty of people in similar situations. I worked in a food coop, for love but almost no money. I started two businesses for love but little money. I did hundreds of lectures on gay rights and civil rights -- for no compensation at all, just for love. Teachers and social workers and caregivers may love their work, but they are poorly compensated.

I have always felt that the most spiritually rewarding jobs were the worst compensated, and the most soul-destroying jobs are often the best compensated. (It is quite possible to have a job that provides neither mon

Kenneth B.
Kenny Boswell3 years ago

Thanks for the information. As far as i'm concerned, that is the REAL truth that shoud be taught, hard work, dedication while not being greedy or grasping.

Lynn C.
Lynn C.3 years ago

Great post. Thank you for making it fun.

Leena K.
Leena K.3 years ago

Great article, it made me really happy, thanks!