Intelligent, successful - and miserable
The traits which drive high achievers also stop us finding happiness. Anna Magee asks why - and looks for solutions
Published 28/04/2016 | 02:30
How happy are you? If the answer is, "Well, who is?", you're not alone.
Last month, the World Happiness Index of 2016 ranked Irish people just 23rd in the world out of 158 countries, despite our relative affluence.
A recurring theme in studies of happiness is that prosperity and success does not translate into happiness. In fact one recent UK study found that affluent London boroughs such as Camden and Islington reported the lowest levels of life satisfaction in the country.
But why is it that despite prosperity and individual success, so many people report low contentment? A new book suggests that, in fact, these qualities are closely linked.
Raj Raghunathan is a happiness researcher and professor of marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, where he has taught more than 100,000 students a course called 'What are the determinants of a fulfilling and happy life?'. In the past five years, he has given 1,500 successful students - those with superior IQs, greater drive, high critical thinking ability and a better work ethic - a "mental chatter exercise" in which they kept a diary of their thoughts for two weeks.
The students expected 60-75pc of their thoughts to be positive, but most - up to 70pc - were negative.
"Their negative mental chatter fell into three main categories: feeling inferior, lack of love and connectivity with others, and lack of control over themselves and other people," says Prof Raghunathan.
In his new book, the researcher reveals the traits of successful people that can get in the way of happiness and explains what to do instead.
Need for control
It's a familiar scenario we see in ourselves or other successful people: the need to control other people and situations - and it's worse if you're a "maximiser", someone with the irrepressible urge to make things better.
This leads to unhappiness in two ways. First, trying to control someone's behaviour leads to "psychological reactance", when people do the opposite (you attempt to control your spouse's diet and he/she responds with pizza binges to spite you).
Second, it leads to "power stress", where you get angry and frustrated when others fail to behave in the way you want. Plus, our decision-making suffers because we drive away those who disagree with us and surround ourselves only with those who don't mind being controlled - "yes" people.
What to do instead: Build your internal control muscle. Countless studies have found that being in control of ourselves rather than others - internal control - leads to increased levels of happiness. Developing internal control is like building a muscle - the more you exercise it, the more it grows and strengthens. Starting small is best. Practise maintaining internal control when tiny things disappoint you, such as rain on your holiday or your child bawling their head off in public.
Try labelling your emotions without trying to control the situation or person, and then move on. For example, "I'm feeling frustrated because I'm stuck in traffic, but that's okay because I can't control that."
Desire for superiority
Studies have found that people who are higher in status are more physically and emotionally healthy. But striving too hard for superiority can make us unhappy. First, it can lead to mimicking the competition, which minimises our authenticity. Your neighbour runs 100m in 20 seconds, so you focus on running it in 12 to beat him.
But you're much better off having an internal yardstick for comparison, or you will be tempted into moving away from your own strengths to do what he does.
Superiority is also hard to measure - how do you know you're the best drummer or teacher out there? - so we use "extrinsic markers", such as fame or wealth, to measure our status. That makes us materialistic - and numerous studies have found that as materialism goes up, contentment goes down.
What to do instead: Practise extrinsic gratitude. Gratitude lists are all the rage because they have been proven to work. But rather than emphasise how well you have done and what a great job you did, practise being grateful for all the small things and people that came together to bring you a favourable outcome. That kind of extrinsic gratitude connects you to people, while striving for superiority can isolate you (especially if you're always going on about your achievements).
Try self-compassion, too. This is being pioneered by Dr Kristin Neff at the University of Austin, Texas. She says that when you experience a failure or let-down, treat yourself like you would a good friend. You can even write that "friend" an email or letter explaining why they needn't feel ashamed or disappointed for whatever mistake they made.
It's touchy-feely, but has been shown to work.
Wanting to be loved
Those in intimate, long-term relationships with a significant other fare well in the happiness stakes, and love and connection have been shown in studies to be a critical human need. But for many people who strive for success before happiness, a healthy need for connection can become neediness.
In studies, high levels of neediness correlate to unhappiness, anxiety and depression, and can make us overly concerned with what others think. This can manifest as a hunger for fame or accolades and become a self-fulfilling prophecy by turning people off being around you and triggering loneliness, which leads to more neediness.
What to do instead: Check your ECR rating. This stands for Experiences in Close Relationships (find out where you are on the scale at happysmarts.com/e/alpha/survery2.php) and relates to the attachment style you developed growing up. It can help you understand whether you tend toward neediness or a healthy need for connection.
Be an "otherish" giver. While the successful and miserable tend to show desperation and neediness for love, the happy and successful tend to focus on the need to love and give.
Research by business psychologist Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, suggests that giving more - materially and emotionally - can make us happier.
But he distinguishes between selfless givers who give so indiscriminately that they burn out, and otherish givers who are more likely to be successful because they take care of themselves as well (and don't want or expect returns).
WILL IT MAKE ME HAPPY?
Yes. Warwick University research has identified a U-shaped curve in happiness levels over a person's lifetime, starting out high in their 20s, then hitting a low at around 46 before rising again in later decades. An ONS survey this year found those aged 45-59 reported the lowest life satisfaction, while happiness peaked between 65 and 79.
Up to a point. Research presented to the American Psychological Association in 2014 found that emotional well-being increased with income, but only up to pounds 45,000, when most people's basic needs were met.
Yes. "We get satisfaction from developing mastery over something if it corresponds with our talents and abilities, and helps us experience the phenomenon of flow - when time stands still because you're enjoying something so much," says Prof Raghunathan.
Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky found that career goals rather than money correlated with work happiness.
Yes. A Harvard Medical School study tracking 268 men from 1938 to the early 2000s found that the strength of their social relationships determined the happiest 10pc.
Depends. Research by Cambridge University found that those who spent their money in keeping with their personalitie were happier. So when introverts spent at bookstores for example, and extroverts at bars, both groups were happier.