Which Comes First: Happiness or Success?

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Apr 29, 2023

Article contributed by Amanda Gordon, Psychologist at Indeed.

Our view of happiness and success is similar to the age-old ‘chicken or egg’ debate – what comes first? Does happiness lead to success, or does success lead to happiness?

Recent research by global hiring platform Indeed found 68% of Australians believe happiness leads to success, rather than success leading to happiness. And while 94% of us believe it’s possible to be happy at work, only 26% of unhappy workers are actively looking for new jobs – suggesting many of us aren’t prioritising our happiness, even though we say we are.

Happiness is a subjective feeling. Each of us feel happiness in different ways and through different means. Happiness is self-reported and a common goal to which many of us aspire. Success, on the other hand, is often judged or measured by comparison. Often, we measure our success based on our progression, positive change over time, achievement, and recognition from others.

When it comes to our professional lives, it’s common to feel elation after a promotion or a pay rise. While we often attribute this feeling to happiness, this type of positive emotion can be fleeting as we return to the daily grind, striving for more, and hunting for the next buzz of external reward. But when we measure success by our ability to cultivate happiness or fulfilment at work, we are more likely to find lasting contentment in both the workplace and in ourselves.

Happiness and success are not mutually exclusive – we can have both. But it’s important to be aware of the risks in prioritising success over happiness so we can understand how to blend the two to both enjoy the moment and continue striving for more. Here are 3 things that happen when we prioritise happiness over success.


The unblinkered pursuit of success can be lonely – and loneliness doesn’t lead to happiness. In the workplace, we often measure performance in ways that look at individual success. For example, to help an employee work towards pay rises, bonuses, or promotions, workplaces often set individual goals or targets, such as an annual KPI that the employee must meet. When focusing solely on these as measures of success, the employee might fall into a habit of caring for their individual goals, over the success of their team.

What this approach doesn’t consider is that looking out for others and working together to achieve a common goal gives us a sense of meaningful human connection, builds our relationships with others, and enhances our happiness.

teamwork success


Working remotely has offered many of us the opportunity to better balance our lives. Many have found this refreshing, but for others, remote work has provided a constant and unhealthy connection to work. Some workers who focus solely on professional success have lost the capacity to close their laptops at a sensible time – people who now take calls any time of the day or night, who respond to emails on their commute, and who feel overwhelmed by work demands. They tend to feel that work is never-ending, and that they are always under pressure to relentlessly prove themselves and to meet professional goals, opening the door to workaholism and burnout.

Success can be achieved when firm boundaries are in place. Setting boundaries at work can help to reclaim time, which in turn gives us space to elevate our happiness. Blocking time in a shared diary, setting an out of office and switching off your work alerts at the end of the day can help structure our time, making us more efficient and focused, reducing stress and increasing productivity, motivation, and happiness.


Solely seeking success at work can set us on a path of constant personal review and comparison. This can cause resentment to build up and affect our work ethic, performance, and trust. While comparison is natural for the human mind, too much comparison can lead to an unhealthy mindset that won’t lead to happiness, and often makes us feel bad about ourselves.

To achieve both success and happiness, we must focus on our strengths and development to build personal confidence. We need to find our own way to build connections and solve problems, and recognise our own unique perspectives as an asset to our workplaces. This will help foster happiness and ultimately lead to success.

Happiness and success aren’t mutually exclusive but chasing one over the other can lead to an imbalance. Seeking measurements of success in ways beyond financial reward or external approval – for example, through rewarding relationships with colleagues or working as a team to meet common goals – can provide us with a more sustained sense of personal fulfilment, happiness and a more permanent perception of what it means to be successful. 

success work doctor

Tips to achieve both happiness and success at work:

  • Set group goals as well as individual goals, and measure your progress towards them
  • Connect with your co-workers, taking breaks from the pressures of work to regroup through healthy engagement
  • Find opportunities to engage with others to achieve outcomes together – and celebrate the progress as well as the completion
  • Create separation between work and your personal life and devote yourself to each exclusively


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