The Happy High Achievers

If you're like most high achievers, real happiness remains elusive.

Are you happy in your job? The data says you’re probably not. I can also speak from experience. For most of my life, I operated under a false assumption that the more successful I became, the more happiness I’d feel. But what I found was just the opposite. At one point in my early thirties, I had the experience of attaining everything I had once dreamed of. But instead of feeling elated and happy, I felt burdened, stressed, and beaten down by constant and competing demands. In my experience in the Young President’s Association, a worldwide group of successful CEOs, I found that very few were actually genuinely happy as well.

Why is this? Why doesn’t greater success seem to lead to greater happiness? There’s an interesting study on success and happiness by Dr. Vance Caesar of the Caesar Group that sheds some light on this phenomenon. In an ongoing study of high achievers (the top 2-3 percent of individuals in a given field) across all walks of life, Dr. Caesar discovered this: Only 1 out of 10 high achievers (.2 to .3 percent of the total pool) rate themselves as authentically happy. Imagine that: If you gather ten thousand top achievers from all walks of life—the rich, the famous, the talented—only a handful will actually consider themselves happy.

What’s the difference between a happy high achiever and the rest? In his research, Dr. Caesar identifies eight attributes that dictate both success and happiness. Most of these are fairly easy to recognize and intuitively make sense. They include a driving sense of purpose, a compelling vision, and the intrinsic feeling that your work is meaningful. Other attributes include beliefs and behaviors that create inner peace, a regular process involving the three Rs (review, renewal, and recommitment), and outstanding discipline. Additionally, happy high achievers generally work with mentors and coaches.

It turns out that one of the secrets of the top of the top—the tiny fraction that is both successful and happy—is that they mastered the game of energy management to such a point that they get more than they give from all of their key relationships. That may sound confusing at first so allow me to explain.

As we’ve discussed, everything is a system and every system exists in relationship to other systems. What happy high achievers recognize is that everything in life is ultimately an exchange of energy. After our health, the single greatest factor that energizes us or depletes us is the quality of our closest relationships. If you’ve ever been in a “vampire” relationship that sucks all the energy out of you, you know it can take days to recover from even a brief encounter. On the other hand, if you have a best friend who always seems to make you feel better, then even a brief encounter can float you higher for days. Recognizing this, happy high achievers make a conscious effort to establish and nurture energizing relationships.

Successful relationships are a two-way street. In an ineffective relationship, one or both parties experience the feeling of giving more energy than they get back. For example, a marriage where one partner feels she is constantly giving more than getting creates resentment. Over time, that resentment builds up and she says, “I’m leaving you because my needs aren’t being met.” In a business setting, the employee who feels he is continually giving more to the company than he is getting in return will soon become bitter and burned out, with either an ulcer or a new job search on the horizon.

On the other hand, a highly effective relationship is one where both parties are able to give each other what they need in a way that adds to their own energy. For example, a marriage where it’s easy (i.e., there is a low cost of energy) for both partners to meet the needs of the other and both partners feel their needs are met is a highly successful union. The relationship “just works.” In a business setting, you’ll find a great mutual fit when an employee feels she is getting more from her job than giving to it, and her managers feel they are getting more from her than they’re giving in total compensation. The employee is thinking, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this. I would do it for free . . . can you believe it?” Similarly, her managers are thinking, “She is one of our top performers. She’s passionate about what she does and delivers outstanding work. I wish I had ten more like her.” The bottom line is that the relationship is net additive, supportive, and energizing to both parties. It just works.

The key differentiator, then, between happy high achievers and the rest is that happy high achievers are extremely vigilant about only allowing relationships into their lives that add to their energy. This includes their marriages as well as their relationships with their families, companies, boards of directors, key staff, and important clients. They make it a point to only allow relationships that are net additive. If a relationship isn’t net additive, it’s no longer one of their primary relationships. It gets shifted or it is gone.

Back to The Success Guide.

Next to Are You Giving More Than You Get in Return?

Leave a Reply