The Paradox Of Success

Working on your goals and then achieving them makes you more unhappy than before, at least for the short-term. In other words, success causes unhappiness. The reason is because success creates a void that steers you towards malaise, confusion, and existential purgatory. It leads to questions like this:

  • What do I do next?
  • What is my purpose?
  • Why aren’t I happier than I thought I would be?
  • What is the point of life?
  • Am I achieving enough compared to others?

Let’s say that your goal is achieving $1 million in wealth. Work towards your goal started with reading business books and networking with successful people. You then came up with a plan for a business and over the course of several years executed that plan to the point where you reached your goal. Your immediate feeling is one of elation. I did it! You’re proud of your achievement and share them with those close to you, but after a couple weeks, you get used to the idea of having a lot of money. The tough questions above seep into your head and you soon notice guys richer than you, making you feel inferior in the face of their greater wealth. The initial achievement was the highest of highs, but it did not last, and you end up lower than you were before you achieved the goal.

Any type of success has a hangover. The higher the achievement, the greater the hangover. Imagine banging ten girls in a month, whereas your normal count is only one (or none). You’re going to feel like a sex god, but then your hot streak inevitably ends and you begin to get agitated and anxious without really knowing why. This is success hangover. Or say you return home after an exciting trip abroad only to enter a mild depression upon resuming your cubicle lifestyle. Anything good you achieve in life must have an equal and opposite reaction that brings you below your happiness setpoint, which is determined by your genetics, personality, character, temperament, upbringing, and belief system. It takes additional time for it rise back up to your basal level.

There are three solutions to the paradox of success:

1. Achieve ever-escalating accomplishments in order to keep the party going. The problem is that you will hit a ceiling where you simply can’t go any further, and the hangover from that may lead to a breakdown because you ignored the tough questions for so long. You proceeded blindly without self-awareness.

2. Adopt a more Buddhist-inspired ascetic lifestyle where you have no goals. This would be fine in days of rural living where life was simple, but today’s urban, consumerist lifestyle makes it close to impossible to prevent comparing yourself to others and desiring the accoutrements of modern living. Even the strongest of us will find it hard to resist wanting a nice smartphone, fast internet, good dining, sex with pretty women, and so on. You would have to physically remove yourself from these temptations by adopting a lifestyle of the ancients.

3. Understand that achievement won’t increase your happiness. Achieve your goals, but don’t expect it to change how you feel about life. I like sex with beautiful women because of the pleasure it gives me, but I know doing so won’t give me permanent happiness. I like selling a lot of books and making money, but I know selling a million books won’t change how happy I feel in my day-to-day life. It’s okay to desire things as long as you know that the resulting high from achievement will always be followed by an upsetting hangover.

I’ve adopted the third solution. I understand that the seed of unhappiness is planted whenever I set out to achieve a goal, and that when that goal is achieved, I will enter a dip that can not be effectively combated with further goal seeking. Instead I will accept the hangover that results, right myself with dutiful work that busies my mind and body (writing, reading, fitness), and proceed with life until the hangover passes. I will accumulate wisdom from achieving the new goal, and appreciate the positive improvement to my being, but I know that my long-term happiness will not budge because of it. We are all outfitted with a program where success does very little for us in the grand scheme of life. Maybe this is too bad for us, but the sooner we accept that fact, the better off we’ll be.

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