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The Backwards Success Equation


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In his brilliant book, Happiness at Work: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Shawn Achor, suggests that most people follow a formula that has been indoctrinated into them from parents, companies, and society itself. That is: If you work hard, you will become successful, and then you will be happy.


The problem, Achor says, is that the equation is backward. “More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Thanks to this cutting edge science, we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result. And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement – giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage” (Achor, 2010).


Achor’s assertion is supported by a recent study conducted by researchers at University of Buffalo that shows that not only does success not bring happiness – the pursuit of it might actually make us feel worse.


Working with samples of 349 college students and a nationally representative group of 389 participants, the researchers first developed a scale to measure Financial Contingency of Self-Worth (CSW), or the degree to which people base their self-esteem on financial success, and then conducted a series of experiments to examine the effects of threatening people’s sense of financial security.


Participants were first asked to write about a financial stressor, while researchers coded the type of language they used to describe their financial problems. This led to a drop in feelings of autonomy for all participants, yet it was those who tied their self-esteem to financial success who showed more disengagement and gave up searching for solutions (Park, 2017). As lead author Lora Park, an associate professor of psychology at UB explains, “We found that people who highly based their self-worth on financial success used more negative emotion-related words, like sadness and anger. This demonstrates that just thinking about a financial problem generates a lot of stress and negative emotions for these individuals” (Park, 2017).


On the other hand, when participants were asked to think about their personal strengths, the effect disappeared, suggesting that self-esteem can play a reparative role when facing financial problems (Park, 2017).


“People don’t often think of the possible down sides of wrapping their identity and self-worth around financial pursuits, because our society values wealth as a model of how one should be in the world. It’s important to realize these costs because people are gravitating toward this domain as a source of self-esteem without realizing that it has these unintended consequences,” (Park, 2017).


Basing self-esteem on financial success also predicted making more financially-based social comparisons with others, feeling less autonomy and control over one’s life, and experiencing more financial hassles, stress, and anxiety. These findings were evident even after accounting for other variables, such as financial status, materialistic values and importance of financial goals (Park, 2017).


Tying our self-worth to financial success, while it may seem a natural outcome of being raised in a culture that values wealth and material possessions, comes with an undesirable set of negative psychological consequences, but it also makes us less likely to reach our financial goals.


According to the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of the University of California, Riverside, Laura King, Ph.D., of University of Missouri, Columbia and Ed Diener, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and The Gallup Organization, happiness, as purported by Achor, is the catalyst, not the outcome of success.


In a review of 225 studies Lyubomirsky, and her colleagues examined studies involving three different types of evidence – cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental designs – to determine how happiness and positive affect are related to culturally-valued success. The questions they asked were: “Are happy people more successful than unhappy people?”; “Does long-term happiness and short term positive affect co-occur with desirable behaviors?”; “Does happiness precede success?”; “Does positive affect pave the way for success-like behaviors?”; “Does positive affect lead to success-oriented behaviors?”


What Lyubomirsky and her team found was that chronically happy people are in general more successful across many life domains than less happy people. The results of these studies suggests that happiness leads to behaviors that often produce further success in work, relationships, and health, and these successes result in part from a person’s positive affect. Furthermore, evidence from the cross-sectional studies confirm that a person’s well-being is associated with positive perceptions of self and others, sociability, creativity, prosocial behavior, a strong immune system, and effective coping skills (Lyubomirsky, et. al., 2015).


“Happy people frequently experience positive moods and these positive moods prompt them to be more likely to work actively toward new goals and build new resources. When people feel happy, they tend to feel confident, optimistic, and energetic and others find them likable and sociable. Happy people are thus able to benefit from these perceptions” (Lyubomirsky, 2015).


Like Achor, Lyubomirsky notes that the typical equation – and one that had previously been suggested in research – that success leads to happiness, just doesn’t add up. Instead, it’s happiness that fuels success. Lyobomirsky concludes, “Our review provides strong support that happiness, in many cases, leads to successful outcomes, rather than merely following from them” (Lyubomirsky, 2015).

The Backwards Success Equation

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2019). The Backwards Success Equation. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Apr 2019
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