You could fill a library with all the research showing an association between happiness and success – no surprise there, why wouldn’t success lead people to be more happy? But after conducting a comprehensive review of 225 studies, collectively involving more than 275,000 participants, Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California and colleagues have concluded that happiness doesn’t just flow from success, it actually causes it.
Lyubomirsky and her collaborators trawled through three kinds of study: cross-sectional research, longitudinal research, and lab-based, experimental research. Throughout, happiness was defined as the experience of positive emotions most of the time, rather than as brief episodes of intense euphoria.
The cross-sectional studies can’t show that happiness causes success, but if they showed no association between happiness and success, that would obviously undermine any argument for a causal relationship between the two. In fact, the cross-sectional literature showed that happy people tend to have more successful relationships, careers and better health.
The longitudinal studies, of which there were far fewer, measured people’s happiness at one time point and then observed their success over subsequent years, simultaneously controlling for other extraneous factors that might have caused both the happiness and later success. These studies consistently showed that happiness tended to precede fulfilling work, satisfying relationships and a long life.
Finally, experimental studies that induced positive moods in people, for example using gifts or pleasant music, showed that short-term positive feelings increase people’s sociability, altruism, how much they like themselves and others, improve their ability to resolve conflicts, and boost their immune systems.
So how might happiness be causing success? The researchers said: “It appears that happiness, rooted in personality and in past successes, leads to approach behaviours that often lead to further success”.
“In other words”, they said “because all is going well, individuals can expand their resources and friendships; they can take the opportunity to build their repertoire of skills for future use; or they can rest and relax to rebuild their energy after expending high levels of effort”.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.
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