As a high achiever, you have this tremendous inner force that prevents you from being still, but no matter what you have already achieved, you feel unhappy and empty. And you can’t understand why.
As an achiever, you have a constant need for attainment. You translate positive intentions into tangible results. You have an attitude of action. Determination is the consistency of your actions. You make stuff happen. You have an internal fire burning inside you, which gives you intensity, energy, and power that enables you to push hard to get things done or to work long hours without burning out. It drives you to do more, to achieve more. By the end of the day, you must accomplish something tangible to feel good about yourself. If the day passes without some form of achievement, no matter how small, you feel dissatisfied. And for you might feel as if every day starts at zero. Upon finishing a challenging project, you rarely seek to be rewarded with a longer rest or an easy assignment. You are restless and never standing still; you are always thinking, taking action, and on the move. When you reach one level of success, you are immediately curious about what could be next. While you appreciate recognition for past achievements, your motivation lies in striving toward the next goal on the horizon.
While reading this, you may envy all achievers, as it sounds like it is so easy for them to move forward or up the hill because they already have that inner force that doesn’t let them stop. They don’t have to deal with procrastination or look for motivation to start, as attainment by itself is imperative for them.
But, this inner force can have its flip side as well. The restless quest for achievements can become a difficult burden that you have to carry with you no matter what you have already achieved. You may feel stressed, confused, frustrated, tired, or even empty.
For many, what is written above may be hard to understand. How could achievement ever leave anyone feeling unhappy?
There are many different reasons for each individual story. Still, in this article, I will try to articulate and summarize the more subtle reasons which are usually not an obvious source of emotional discontent that comes with achievements.
We have to clarify that there is nothing wrong with achievement itself; the question is in our perception and attitude towards achievements.
# A warrior for self-worth
For complex reasons, many people define their identity and self-worth by their achievements, especially by their educational and career achievements. I call these achievers warriors for self-worth. Their life is meaningful only if and when they succeed, but if they fail, then the only thing upon their worthiness was valued, is lost, and they become convinced that they are worthless.
Therefore, there is a constant feeling that they have to achieve in order to deserve and sustain their worthiness and value. They seek goal after goal, hoping that something will make them more sustainably fulfilled, but the truth is that they are running on a treadmill of self-doubt and a feeling of “not good enough.”
This kind of inner force produces a lot of negative brain chemicals that result in an increased level of stress, which can have significant detrimental consequences on one’s well-being and overall performance.
And, what makes it even more confusing is that they are not able to realize that it’s the need for achievements that is actually the source of their emotional discontent. They know that they feel fatigued, frustrated, and utterly unfulfilled, but it is hard to connect these feelings with their achievements.
There could be many reasons for this, but the most common and generative source lies in our goal-oriented society that prompts achievements and self-promotion. Already in our childhood, we are taught that our value ultimately comes from our accomplishments and what we do, but not who we are. Therefore, to gain and sustain the value and to feel adequate in a goal-oriented society, we become warriors for achievements with almost no time for relaxation. We keep ourselves busy and distracted, so we don’t have to be alone in our heads since we are taught that just being you is not good enough.
# The level of accomplishments is measured by criteria from society
A significant part of achievements is the feeling of being good at something; a sense that we have mastered something. Achievers generally have plenty of accomplishments based on their skills and knowledge; nevertheless, they often don’t genuinely enjoy the real pride and happiness which comes from their mastery.
Why are there so many smart, bright, successful people sabotaging their own happiness? As Raj Raghuna, the author of If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? claims, it’s because they go about measuring their mastery all wrong. Many people use social comparisons to determine their level of accomplishment.
Many people commonly use other yardsticks to measure the worth of their accomplishments according to the worth of others. This may be their net worth measured by the level of their monthly salary and other financial assets, or what kind of job they have. For example, a financial adviser is often more respected than a teacher in a kindergarten. Or, it could be based on what kind of people they know – how well established and important the people they know are. And they try to place their achievements somewhere on a scale of importance accordingly to these external criteria.
They start to chase status symbols and external recognition rather than mastery for the sake of mastery, or for the impact they want to make with their mastery. Their self-worth is based almost entirely outside of themselves, and therefore they can feel incredibly empty.
Those yardsticks have another negative side as they are ones that people adapt to quickly. For example, after you get a raise in your salary, you might be proud and happy for a few months, but after that time, you get used to it, and all the positive emotions coming from a raise simply diminish. All that stays is a new need for another big bump in order to sustain your level of happiness. This phenomenon actually has a name, which is the “hedonic treadmill” and has been the topic of many kinds of research.
# Success leads to happiness
Too many achievers who have a strong desire to be successful in life, tend to believe that through this success, they will automatically become happier. They sacrifice their happiness now as this will lead to greater success, and this will bring even greater happiness in the future. It is like they put their life on a pause, and they plan to resume it after they become successful. They make their happiness contingent on achieving the next promotion, a higher salary, or whatever goal they’re seeking. “After I get this promotion, I will become really happy.”
Happiness is the ultimate goal of virtually all the decisions we make in life. But, is it true that success leads to happiness? Or, is it all the way around, and happiness leads to success?
Barbara Fredrickson has, based on her research, developed a “Broaden and Build Theory.” The substance of this theory lies in the notion that positive emotions play an essential role in our survival and success. Positive emotions, like love, joy, and gratitude, promote new and creative actions, ideas, and social bonds. When people experience positive emotions, their well-being resources – physical, intellectual, and psychological resources – are broadened, and they are able to open up themselves to new possibilities and ideas and become more resilient and more positive. Ultimately, this leads to greater success. The building part of this theory is tied into the findings that these personal well-being resources are durable and can be drawn upon in later moments, in different emotional states, to maintain well-being. Therefore, first, we need to be happy and not the other way around.
Similarly, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a leading happiness researcher and the author of “The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want.“, concludes that it’s a myth to believe that happiness can be changed by changing your life circumstances—how well-educated you are, your net worth, etc. Life circumstances contribute to only about 10% of happiness.
“If we can accept as true that life circumstances are not the keys to happiness, we’ll be greatly empowered to pursue happiness for ourselves,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky
How to become a happy achiever
What you have to do to become a happy achiever depends on your attitude, perception, and interpretation of your own achievements. However, if you start by at least considering some of the aspects written bellow, you will be on an excellent path towards finding sustainable joy and pride, which comes with or after your achievements.
Find your meaning and pleasure coming from achievements. Figure out how you feel about having to achieve and what you want to do. Different people find different evidence compelling, so consider what kind of achievements hold the greatest weight for you. Make a difference between achievements that are traditionally viewed as symbols of success and the ones that you value the most. Engage in goals you want to achieve instead of what you feel you “should” be doing.
“When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people,” Raghunathan writes.
Control your attitude and the expectations you hold around success and happiness. Define or redefine your success and the impact you want to make. Only then will your work take on greater meaning. The happy and fulfilled high achievers know how their effort contributes to others – to the business or the community or the world.
It is crucial to assess how well your work is aligned with your values, personality and needs – how coherent your work is with who you are and what engages you. Spend time doing things you love and value with people you love and value.
Remind yourself to “enjoy now.” If you can enjoy the present, you don’t need to count on the happiness that might be or might not be waiting for you in the future. Remember, success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success. Love what you do. Track times when you feel excited, focused, and having a good time at work, and what exactly you were doing during those times. Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you are doing.
And most of all, stop chasing the idea of becoming a well-rounded figure. Allow yourself to be good enough, such as you already are. Step out of the crowd expectations.
I will conclude with a very simple, but also crucial advice. Take time to celebrate each success before moving on to the next item or task, even if it is for just a few minutes.