Are You Chasing Success or Happiness?

running runner long distance fitness

In a current society that is as fast paced as ever, people often wonder which came first; success or happiness? The real problem is determining what makes us truly happy and remembering to value that the most. Carl Richards asks us to really think about the people we know who are successful, and then think of those that are happy. Are they the same person? Most of the time they aren’t. So what makes these 2 individuals so different?

Carl Richards is the Director of Investor Education for the BAM Alliance.

This commentary originally appeared October 9, 2014 on

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 counterintuitive. 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 counterintuitive (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. But 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?

Carl Richards

Share This Post

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Our Mailing List

Stay up to date on all things Flourish!

Flourish is Ten Years Old!

A decade ago, we embarked on a journey to empower and serve you with values-based financial planning. In 2024, we celebrate our 10th anniversary with immense gratitude for your trust and support. Here’s to many more years of flourishing financially, together!

Skip to content