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The goal of this “Happiness and success” essay is to pull together evidence consistent with the argument that happiness may precede and promote success. Since the majority of people spend a large percentage of their life at work and many derive some sort of identity from it, it is often considered a relevant domain when people asses their level of success in life. Therefore, here is a literature review that will focus on the effect of subjective well-being on career success.
In the past, the vast majority of psychological research around emotional states has been on the negative aspects of human life. This so called ‘disease model’ has proven very useful over the years, but also has numerous downsides. One of the major disadvantages of such an approach as described by M.Seligman is that it often ignores the relatively untroubled people and how to improve their ‘normal’ lives. Positive Psychology, as introduced by Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi,, rather focusses on the positive emotions and their importance in long-term flourishing.
The rise of positive psychology has legitimized research into happiness and other positive states as opposed to negative outcomes and experiences from the previously dominant disease model. As such, over the last decade, multiple studies have proven a robust relationship between success – including career, marriage and friendship – and happiness. The question remains whether this is because successes engender happiness or rather because positive affect bolsters success.
Until recently most research has posited that reaching certain levels of success ultimately result in an overall feeling of happiness: work hard, become successful and then one will be happy. This intuitive formula is baked into us by society from the day one is born. However, an important caveat of such reasoning is that once one reaches his/her goals, he/she will redefine what success looks like in the hope that reaching those newly set goals will bring even more happiness. Moreover, research suggests that this pattern of belief is likely broken because it is backward. Research over the past decade in the fields of positive psychology, management and neuroscience has proven that this basic formula works the other way around: happiness as a precursor to, rather than just a result of, success. In his book The Happiness Advantage S.Achor states that one’s brain works significantly better at positive than at negative or neutral states. This ‘happiness advantage’, as he calls it ,improves both business and educational outcomes and can be the difference between leading a successful life and not living up to your potential.
Evidence for the effect of happiness on success has become widespread over the last decade and can be divided into 3 main categories: cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental.
Cross-sectional studies examine people at a specific point in time. Although such research can provide evidence of a link between happiness and success, it is important to note that it cannot determine the direction of the causality. An extensive study of the cross-sectional literature validates the hypothesis that happy people are more likely to succeed in a workplace environment compared to their less happy peers. To start, this proposition was confirmed by Frish as he was able to show that happy students are more likely to graduate. Moreover, it was successfully demonstrated by Wright and his colleagues that happy people receive on average more favorable ratings from their managers and coworkers. These positive evaluations provide a good indicator that happy people are performing better. However, as stated by Boehm & Lyubomirsky, one should to some extent weaken this results since there is always the possibility of the so called halo effect: people with a high positivity affect are more likely to receive additional positive characteristics from the people around them. Furthermore, several studies provide evidence that people with higher levels of subjective well-being are in general more satisfied with their work than unhappy people. Another way to examine whether the performance of individuals high in positive affect is superior is by examining their work engagement. Happy people show greater interest in and commitment to their job. Compared to happy people, employees with lower levels of subjective well-being typically suffer more from absenteeism and burnouts. More evidence for the relative success of employees who experience greater positive emotions is provided by Greaen’s findings that happy individuals are more likely to be in supervisory groups. Furthermore, several studies suggest a positive impact of being happy on income that is even stronger than the one between education and income.
To conclude, the cross-sectional empirical literature reveals robust and extensive correlations between numerous factors of career success and happiness. However, as stated earlier, this cross-sectional evidence cannot answer the question whether happiness causes success or vice versa.
Hence, the question remains whether successes bolsters happiness or is it the reverse. In order to establish the temporal order of happiness and career success, the longitudinal literature is reviewed. Although the longitudinal research is far less extensive than the cross-sectional one, it does validate the hypothesis that happiness results in increased career success. As demonstrated by Haase, Poulin & Heckhausen among others, happy people are characterized by higher levels of job search success. In general, they are more likely to receive follow-up interviews and find subsequent employment. Furthermore, longitudinal evidence shows that the advantages of being happy extend to job satisfaction and career success. A study by Roberts, Caspi & Moffitt demonstrated that adolescents who were happy were more likely to be working in prestigious jobs later in their life. At the same time, they observed that those young adults who acquired higher status also became happier because of it, suggesting a bidirectional relationship between happiness and success. The proposition that happy people are more successful is also more or less reflected by Zelenski, Murphy & Jenkins. Their research provide evidence that happy directors are more productive compared to unhappy ones. However, an important caveat of their investigation is the self-report nature as happy managers have the intention to rate their own productivity more favorably than unhappy directors even though they might not have been more productive. Just like the cross-sectional literature, the longitudinal literature provides evidence that happy people engage in less withdrawal behaviors and supports the notion that happiness results in higher income.
In summary, the longitudinal research provides evidence that happiness might lead to success in the workplace and in this way helps to disentangle the ‘which came first’ chicken-or-egg type of question.
The risk with/of both the longitudinal and cross-sectional research is that they might suffer from the third variable problem which is a type of confounding where a third variable leads to mistaken causality between two other variable. To avoid such mistakes, experimental studies are introduced/were reviewed as well.
The experimental literature is consistent with the cross-sectional and longitudinal research in providing evidence that happy people are more successful than their less happy peers. According to Baron and colleagues, happy people are better at/in negotiating in a cooperative and collaborative way. Moreover, as demonstrated by Forgas, they are more likely to honor their deals. Furthermore, research shows that happy people experience higher levels of self-efficacy without being unrealistic. This increased confidence in one’s own abilities drives self-fulfilling prophecies that ultimately result in an increased productivity and superior performances.
Besides all the psychological research, also neuroscience provides evidence that happiness precedes success. A study by Stanford researchers conducted in 2018 demonstrated that positive feelings make the brain work better since they trigger the release of the serotonin and dopamine. Those chemicals play an important role in problem-solving and mental focus.
To end up, all types of research together, provide considerable evidence for the hypothesis that happiness precedes career success. This explains why more and more firms try to create an atmosphere of fun in the workplace. Some well-known firms have a strong corporate culture that emphasizes pleasure in the work environment – including Marriott, Walt Disney World and Google. However, opinions regarding the importance of fun in the workplace are mixed. According to Collins & Porras it has become a necessary mean to stand the test of time, as described in their book Built to Last. Moreover, once again, Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory can be used to explain the advantages of experiencing positive affect at the workplace. Nevertheless, criticisms against fun in the workplace also bear some truth. Several studies argue that work should always remain about work and not about fun. Moreover, Fleming demonstrated that employees often experience it as fake and inauthentic and are therefore reluctant to participate in such activities.
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