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If my intuition is right, the above poll should indicate that success (or failure) is not an absolute state. Labeling a person ‘successful’ (or ‘unsuccessful’) is a biased thought process that we are all guilty of participating in. Thinking with an either/or mindset has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic because we no longer meet people in person and instead rely on social media to follow their lives and careers. When taken to an extreme, it creates envy, self-resentment, and feelings of inadequacy.
Professional Success, social media and career envy
Social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, were created for professionals to share key moments in their careers and network. However, with the rise of influencer culture and motivational speakers vying for our attention, it may soon become a professional version of Instagram.
Career envy is a known social and mental health issue affecting every professional, but it can have a devastating effect on certain vulnerable members of society who might consider themselves as failures – including those unable to find meaningful work or forced to leave the workplace due to COVID-19, a majority of whom are middle and low-income women, immigrants, and individuals with disabilities or mental health issues.
It is important to remember that social media is designed to show just a portion of reality. Few people post about their daily work schedules, and even fewer share their failures publicly. However, success is a relative state, and the best measure of success is success relative to one’s own past accomplishments. When success is measure relative to other individuals, it becomes important to recreate the same circumstances and access to resources and opportunities. The book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a great resource to fully understand this concept.
What is the hedonic treadmill and why is it relevant?
The hedonic treadmill is a concept in psychology that addresses our happiness in relation to key positive and negative events in our lives. More precisely, the hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes (Source: Wikipedia). In other words, the successful moments in our lives only give us a brief moment of satisfaction before we return to our previous state of mind. In many cases, it leads to a comparison with a different set of people and the same sense of nonfulfillment and inadequacy that plagues high achievers before their achievement.
This also applies to professionals or entrepreneurs considered highly successful, such as Justin Kwan, the co-founder of Twitch. Twitch was a successful start-up headed by Justin Kwan and Emmett Shear among others, which sold to Amazon for $1 Billion in 2014 (valued at $15 Billion today). On his YouTube channel he discusses this success in the context of the hedonic treadmill. Despite accomplishing success beyond his wildest dreams, Kan claims he was still unhappy and constantly compared himself to his more successful friends.
So, individuals that have not sold their start-up for $1 Billion can be forgiven for feeling the same way too.
How to be happier with success and failure?
Here are several tips that are helpful for professionals who wish to avoid the negative effects of the hedonic treadmill:
1. Set long-term goals and a set of values that define perpetual success and happiness. These should not be based entirely on professional and business success but should encompass growth in the broader sense and focus on intrinsic happiness. Examples of healthy goals include learning and self-improvement, attention to diet, exercise, mental health, and maintaining good relationships with others, including family and loved ones.
2. Reframe the mindset by thinking of success as a long-term goal and failure as a short-term setback. By becoming adaptive and opportunistic when it comes to professional growth makes success a lifelong pursuit.
3. Extend the happiness derived from successful moments in life by not altering one’s lifestyle dramatically. Spending money on expensive food and clothing, for example, wears out the intrinsic value of such luxury purchases very quickly. An unexpected windfall or a successfully negotiated raise can be invested, or better yet, given away to a cause or charity, which has been proven to increase intrinsic happiness in individuals.
Similarly, the effects of failure do not last long. To shorten it further, make all changes necessary at once. Cut off the things that hold you back, including expenditure on non-essentials, and get ready for success.
4. Finally, take stock of what you have. Living in the moment and being happy with what one has is a rare quality to possess which takes the right mindset and years of practice to achieve. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that most individuals are resilient and capable of living minimally.
Please share this article if you found it helpful and share your own tips for happiness.
The advice given in this article is not medical advice. If you suffer from mental health issues, please consult with a qualified mental health professional.