Is your notion of success making you unhappy?

5 Jan 2021 By Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi explores the difference between being successful and being successfully happy, and some of the factors that may contribute to a mid-life career crisis

Many people in the west will experience a crisis of meaning in work and life in their mid-30s, according to an economic survey by the University of Warwick. Research from more than 500,000 Americans and western Europeans showed a parallel pattern between happiness and wellbeing – a decline in the 30s and hitting rock bottom in the mid-50s before rising again.

But why does this happen? By the mid-30s, people often realise they have a version of success they don’t really like. Previously, I’ve discussed some of the systemic causes of unhappiness at work, but here we look at some of the individual factors, which we have more control over.

Unhappily successful vs successfully happy

There’s a subtle but important distinction between success and happiness. You may have success by external standards yet feel unfulfilled and unhappy. It’s a modern epidemic with potential solutions explored in TheSuccess Trap: why good people stay in jobs they don’t like and how to break free. It could be that the version of the job and life you created was never what you really wanted. Most of us live out the expectations that were handed down to us through our families and society. Or it could also be that your priorities have changed. For example, you may have a desire to spend more time with your family and your salary isn’t worth the sacrifice anymore. In any case, you find yourself working really hard for a job you don’t like. Something is missing and the daily grind is draining.

Two forms of success that don’t work 

While everyone’s particular situation may be different, as humans we tend to get stuck in comfort and crave rewards including the chase. These tendencies can keep us in a suboptimal state of existence and stuck on a treadmill respectively. Here are the two forms of success that result and keep us trapped.

The comfort zone 

At any one time, humans are trying to avoid certain fears (fear of rejection, failure, uncertainty, etc) and meet basic needs (safety, variety, connection and significance). If these fears are avoided and the basic needs met, the animal in us will be satisfied. But the deeper part of us won’t be fulfilled. The part that can imagine, dream, grow and contribute from a zone of genius will lie dormant as unfulfilled potential. What’s missing is the connection to this deeper sense of self.

Empty empire building

For those whose talents happen to match societal expectations, it’s a paradox result. They’re rewarded with status, money and power, but it’s not what they really want. They may realise they want more time and space in their life, but the allure of the next success (big role, big pay cheque, big bonus, etc) keeps them trapped. The good news is that once we realise what’s going on – that we’re either deluding ourselves with temporary comforts or chasing empty goals – we have an opportunity to correct the course we’re on. With a little help and luck, we can create a much more fulfilling life situation.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

It’s unfortunate that most people wait for a crisis or burnout before truly paying attention to what’s missing and how to address that. Excuses for not intervening sooner include lack of time and resources. It’s never too late to take time to figure out what makes you truly happy beyond success by external standards, and then take a step in a new direction. The key is to slow down and make some space to figure it out. It’s not that goals and external success are a bad thing. But they can’t be the only thing for a truly happy life.

Don’t be a victim of your success

We spend the majority of our adult life in work (an estimated 80,000 hours). Spending just 1 per cent of that time thinking about what you truly want would amount to about a day or so each quarter. How many of us really do that? As Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn points out: “Each one of us has to ask ourselves, what do I really want? […] If you want success, you may sacrifice your happiness for it. You can become a victim of success, but you can never become a victim of happiness.”

If we really want happiness, then we have to ask ourselves some important questions. A few you might ask yourself include: what do you believe about success? Who would you be without this version of success? What is worth failing for?

Success beyond ‘me’

The good thing about a career crisis is that once you get over the shock of your real limitations (ageing, disease and death) you should discover a motivation to move past your imagined limitations (time, resources, etc) and live from your deeper, more authentic self. If handled with care and skill, through therapy or coaching, these crises and the questions that emerge from them can lead to a flourishing life. After all, careers for life are over and it’s just as well at this time of rapid societal change.

Ultimately, success in the 21st century has to take us beyond old models of success based on money, power and status, and into something more meaningful that connects us more deeply to ourselves, each other and our environment.

Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi is a specialist adviser, coach and author of The Success Trap

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