Are You Chasing Success or Happiness?

For the next few minutes, I want you to focus on the most successful person you know (and yes, it may be you).

What makes this individual successful in your mind?

Professional accomplishments? Personal wealth?

Now, I want you to think of the happiest person you know.

Did you come up with the same name?


No doubt some of you did.

However, I suspect many more of you ended up with two different people.

We often ignore it, but we live in a world that doesn’t always make it easy for success and happiness to coexist

My sense is that the problem comes back to something fairly basic.

How we currently define success and real happiness overlap very little.

It may seem counter-intuitive.

After all, what successful person wouldn’t be happy?

But go back over the mental list you made for the individual you consider a success.

How many of your qualifications are connected, at least in part, to owning tangible, material things?

Now, think about the happiest person you know.

What makes them happy?

I’m willing to bet it’s because of their relationships and the things they do, not because of what they have.

But why isn’t there a greater alignment between what we consider success and happiness?

One of the best examples of this disconnect is the greater happiness we feel when we’re living an experience versus buying a possession.

Even though it seems counter-intuitive (e.g., your vacation only lasts a week), people are happier both before and after an experience compared to how they feel after buying a physical product.

Think about how we define success

Very often it comes back to what someone buys and owns.

These visible reminders of success become a measuring stick, and like any measuring stick, it can be hard for some of us to measure up.

Case in point, I’ve had more than one person tell me about how they’d like to slow down and live a different life.

These are often people who would easily qualify as successful.

But as we walk through the reasons why they can’t slow down, they invariably hinges on those signs of success.

For instance…

Don’t tell me you wish you had more time to coach your kid’s soccer team if you just bought a luxury car that requires working overtime to make the payments.

While success may come with happiness, sometimes we’ll need to walk away from what everyone else defines as success to find our own happiness.

Yes, this may sound incredibly abstract and maybe even a little New-Agey.

But time after time, I’ve had conversations with clients in which they will share their goals, and their goals will be based on the idea of having “something.”

They focused on visible success and skipped over the happiness part.

They just assumed success meant happiness.

As a result, these clients were surprised to discover that after all their hard work, and despite all the possessions they’d accumulated, they weren’t always happy with the outcome.

What might happen if we reordered happiness and success?

What if we instead said our decisions would be based on what makes us happy?

Of course, we’d be thrilled if those decisions also led to success, but our primary focus was now happiness.

How would that change the decisions you’ve made in the past week?

Would anything be different?

If not, then you’ve managed to find a balance between success and happiness.

But if you find that more than one or two decisions would be different, then maybe it’s time to ask yourself why.

Do you really think success will bring you happiness, or do you just hope that’s the case?


This column originally appeared at the New York TimesCarl Richards blogs are also published weekly in Property Update – Subscribe to my daily commentary by clicking here to receive them. 

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Carl Richards


Carl Richards is a Certified Financial Planner and a columnist for the New York Times, Morningstar magazine and Yahoo Finance. He is author of 2 books, The Behavior Gap & The One-Page Financial Plan. Carl lives with his family in Park City, Utah. You can find his work and sign up for his newsletter (which has an international audience) at

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