Happiness, Zen and the Art of Success

Imagine a scene: A village in a third world country, a group of boys playing soccer in a dusty patch of ground. A small skinny boy, bare feet, bruised knees, covered in dust, is guarding the goals and looking at his team mates chasing the ball; and dreaming of success.

Pause for a minute and think of what this boy is dreaming.

Another scene: In the heart of Silicon Valley, a beautiful corner executive office with ceiling high windows and a nice view. The occupant is looking out the window, gauging at neighboring office buildings; and dreaming of success.

Pause for a minute and think of what this man is dreaming.

What do they have in common? What are they dreaming?

All human beings have an innate desire to be unique and admired by others. The drive to be successful is one of the many aspirations fueled by this desire.


We all want to be successful in life; but what does that mean could differ from person to person. As a matter of fact, it can be different for the same person at different stages of life. I was inspired to write this article simply by my own versions of “the definition of successful”. So I guess, we should establish a common understanding and definition of successful.

Here’s one definition of successful: someone who has achieved some goals and has risen above the general population. If you search the Internet for list of successful people, this definition will fit for most of the names that may show up. These names might be of famous Athletes, Entrepreneurs, Leaders and Musicians etc.

If we try to quantify the number of these successful people, what would be their ratio to the general population? My guess is less than 5%. So what about the rest of 95%? Are we setting ourselves for failure? Why do we want to be successful when there are so many statistical odds stacked against us?

That raises another question: if you are not in that 5% population, are you a failure?

Well, of-course not. You might be a hero to a child, a great friend, a mentor and many other things that makes us human. If we dig deeper into the motivational drivers behind the desire to be successful, you will find that we are often chasing a feeling, a type of emotion. The joy that comes out of accomplishing something; the feeling that “I made it”; a story to tell others. A tangible outcome that we can show to others. It makes us Happy.

This is a very universal desire. We all want to be happy; we want to experience joys; we want our children and family members to be happy; we want our friends to be happy. As a matter of fact, we want happiness more than success. Have you ever heard of anyone wanting to be successful and miserable?


If it is the happiness that we want, let’s try to put our arms around happiness. If I ask the question: what makes you happy? Most of you will have a different answer. What makes one person happy may very well irritate the other. So how can we find the path to happiness if we cannot agree on what makes us happy?

Happiness is a feeling. We all know how we feel when we are happy. It is a feeling that surpasses all other feelings; and we are wild about this feeling. We do all sorts of things to experience that feeling: from shopping to waging wars. For the most part, we feel that it is well within our reach and all we have do is achieve certain outcome or goal, and we often achieve these goals.

But then why aren’t we always happy? Do you think that some people are happier than others? Have you ever wondered why? Is it a personal trait or something they possess that we don’t?

The core culprit here is our expectations and our view of the world around us. The advancements in neuroscience, particularly (fMRI) Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging , scientific community has confirmed that our brain processes information using prediction models, often refered as mental maps. Our brain predicts the outcomes and responds to these predictions. This helps us sharpen our instinctive skills and enables us to make decisions in complex situations. A baseball player can only hit a ball traveling at such a high speed because player’s brain predicts the location and timings of the ball. This is very useful for becoming a better decision maker. It sharpens our judgment skills. During evolution it helped us getting out of the way of approaching danger. However, there is a dark side to it. What happens when things don’t turn out to be the way our brain had predicted? It shocks our system. This is very useful for memory formation, but if we obsess with it too much, we get upset; sometimes with ourself for underachieving, sometimes others because they did not act the way we expected, and sometimes with higher forces. Many get depressed because the outcome did not align with their predictions. This cause and effect phenomenon is so prevalent in our life that we subconsciously make our happiness also conditional.

Happiness and Success

There seem to be a general belief: work hard to achieve your goals and when you achieve them you will be happy. We hear this message from our parents, school and at work. This makes the happiness tangible and conditional, and it resonates with our other brain functions. So we work very hard to achieve these goals.

As The Rolling Stones song “You can’t always get what you want”; some achieve their goals and some don’t. What happens next?

Those who do not achieve their goal feel depressed, victims of the circumstances, blame others and become irritable. Many feel devastated; the “why me” question. Some give up all together, while others become very wary and start to set smaller goals.

Those who do achieve their goals feel good, proud and tell their friends who admire them. It makes them happy. At some stage, it starts to feel selfish and the feeling starts to diminish, and after a while it disappears completely. So these individuals move on to next goal in search of that same feeling. Like an addiction.

In either scenario, we spend enormous amount of energy chasing happiness. As a matter of fact, we spend our entire life in this cycle; going back and forth between the two possible outcomes. We live life in a very complex society; often our goals are also very complex. Most of them are contingent upon external factors that we do not control. This means, if our happiness is tied to these goals, we are letting these external factors control our happiness. We cherish happiness so much, yet we put its fate in someone else’s hands.

Life is a marathon and to ensure that we are not miserable at the end of the marathon, we need to shift our mindset slightly. We need to integrate effort, progress and the intent, along with outcome, into the drivers of happiness. Decades of research in psychology has proven that happiness is a precursor to success. Psychologists has studied this domain in depth and proven that happier people have significant advantage over unhappy people. Think about it for a minute, are you more likely to talk to a person with a smile or frown. Whom would you do a favor or endorse? This bias plays on subconscious level, but results into a very tangible difference, therefore contributing to the success of that individual.

Reducing the emphasis on outcome does not mean that we should not push ourselves to break records, or embark on mission impossible, or accumulate wealth? We drive a great deal of pleasure from success tied with outcome. It is perhaps the biggest contributor to our overall happiness level. However, we need to accept failure as part of life, learn from it, find ways to improve, and reinvigorate ourselves to get back at the challenge with a desire to do better next time. This is also the very essence of sportsmanship: accept failure with grace and try again. Those who are hopeful and believe that they can succeed, often do. Studies show that the individuals with overall positive outlook in life are more likely to thrive after adversity. Those who look at the glass half empty, often become depressed, stressed and irritable. Stress and negativity puts us in fight or flight response mode, which hampers our ability to think creatively and find our way out and up.

Studies have shown that individuals with low average happiness experience a sudden boost in their happiness level after winning a lottery or sudden fame, but their happiness level quickly falls back to same low. On the contrary, individuals with high average happiness level feel sharp decline upon experiencing a life altering adversity like loss of loved one or loss of an important bodily function like eye-sight or function of limbs, but they soon find way back to their normal level of happiness. These individuals are able to find their way out and up from whatever adversity they experience. Success does not increase the average happiness level but happiness can boost our ability to succeed. The belief that success makes one happy is very much like the old belief that the Sun revolves around Earth.

Happiness is also contagious. Happy people make others feel good. They build a much stronger relationship with others and in reciprocity their network of friends makes them even more successful. Studies has shown that happy people are more successful across multiple domains of life, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. We will benefit greatly if we shift our focus from “success” to “happiness”.

Happiness, Zen and Success

It is human nature to do more of things we like. The more we do it, the better we become. The cycle goes on. It starts from some form of external feedback that makes us feel good, and our biological drive makes us wanting to repeat. Repetition leads to mastery, in other words success. Athletes and artists are common example of this scenario. We often classify these individuals as gifted and talented.

However, not everyone reaches the level of mastery, so the key is to internalize the lessons learned and apply them in other domains of life, and become successful in areas that require cross-pollination. This is also the underlying principle of schooling.

We all have things we like or want to do, but sadly not all of us can make a living doing what we like to do. This is where the teachings of Zen come in.

Love what you do. Do your best in everything you do.

Success often comes from being good at a number of things. To become good at anything, we must repeat, and we repeat things we like, which mean our success hinges upon liking the activity. Liking something is a state of mind. As we discussed earlier, one person’s joy might be another’s distress. So, what if the activity happened to be something I hate? Am I at a disadvantage just because I am different from the other person?

Yes, but it is in your control and you can change it. In other words, you are in control of your happiness. Hence the secret of success: “like everything you do”. You will be shocked at the results. If you shift your mindset to see the good in what you do, slowly but surely you will start to like it. If you start working with the intent to improve, soon you will become good at it. Now imagine the power of it. Combine it with the other things you are already good at: imagine the results. This is also the fundamental trait of successful people. Give them anything and they soon become expert at it.

Key to becoming good at anything is to repeat with the desire to improve. The improvement can come in any form; for example, the quality of the outcome or the time taken to complete the task. The As you repeat, you see improvements, hence small successes, and recognizing these successes makes you happy and creates the desire to repeat and improve. You derive a great deal of joy and become one with the task. Soon you find yourself completely submersed into the task. That’s the state of Zen.

This state of mind delivers results, and also makes the journey more enjoyable. No matter the outcome, whether you become a recognized successful person or not, you will live a much richer and happier life. Chasing the results or certain outcome at the expense of your happiness not only have negative consequences on your health and relationships, but can also significantly reduce the value of the accomplishment.

Now circling back to the story of two day-dreamers I started with: I asked you what they have in common. The commonality between the two is me. These were the two chapters of my life. I made it from the dusty planes of India to corporate America. If I look at my life, I am very successful. What more one could hope or want? Yet, at times, I felt I am nobody. I wanted to change that. I felt I can do more, achieve lot more, make more money,… more, more and more. Luckily in that same period I started to read personal development books and found myself gravitating toward psychology. The best lesson: if you want to know how you would feel after achieving something, ask someone who has already achieved it. During that inquiry, I soon discovered that many successful people are not as successful as we think. Many suffer on a personal level. Examples of that prevalent all around us. I know few of them first hand. Many of them, after reaching a stage in life, start searching for meaning of life. They live with regret and spend enormous amount of energy trying to fix things that they cannot undo. Unfortunately, in life we cannot go back to yesterday. There is a time and place for everything in life. You may choose to sacrifice the present for future and make a lot of money, but cannot buy the simple joys that you would have enjoyed in the moment. I wanted to learn from others mistakes and start living a life that is more fulfilling and rewarding. In addition, I discovered that success and fame often falls short of making us happy. Many get sucked into the cycle of “more and more” until they fall. Happiness on the other hand does not guarantee wealth, but it can deliver a holistic success that you enjoy in the moment and years to come.


The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Research Paper by Sonja Lyubomirsky University of California, Riverside and Laura King University of Missouri—Columbia

Dan Gilbert asks, Why are we happy? TED talk by Dan Gilbert

Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. By Shawn Achor

Are You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies to Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life. By Srikumar Rao

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. By Daniel Pink

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. By Daniel Pink

The Truth About What It Takes to Be Successful — and Happy. BNet article by Jeff Haden

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