The Hidden Hazards of Successaholism
“Work addiction, unlike addictions involving alcohol or other substances, is rewarded by our culture with promotions, bonuses, praise, awards, and so on,” notes Emma Seppala, science director of the Stanford University Center for Altruism and Compassion and author of the new book The Happiness Track. The tendency to work excessively and compulsively is driven by “anticipatory joy”— the excitement of a potential or imagined reward. But it’s just another “chase” because the joy and satisfaction that come from obtaining an award, promotion or other benchmark of success is “a fleeting high. It’s not a lasting fulfillment,” she explains.
Unfortunately, our biology doesn’t help in this respect, given that we’re wired to get a thrill from even minor accomplishments, thanks to the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that’s associated with pleasure) in our brains. A 2012 study from Vanderbilt University found that people who are willing to expend a greater effort for larger rewards release greater amounts of dopamine in areas of the brain that are associated with reward than those who aren’t willing to work as hard. As a result, these conscientious workers can get hooked on pursuing the next measure of success, again and again.
But our collective mindset is an even bigger problem, Seppala says, because many people have the misconception that in order to be happy, they need to be successful. So they often sacrifice their happiness in order to try to be successful, which is the opposite of the way it should be, she says. “We have the illusion that the success, fame, or money we are chasing will bring us some kind of lasting fulfillment. [But] we often overestimate the happiness [an achievement] will bring us.” Moreover, this hamster-wheel pursuit of success can eventually lead to burnout, health problems, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, decreased relationship quality, and worse job performance. At work, it can damage productivity, increase job stress and reduce attention span, Seppala says.
The antidote, she says, is to make an effort to be more engaged in the present (to practice mindfulness, in other words), concentrating on the task at hand or the conversation you’re involved in, instead of always focusing on the next challenge or prize. “Paradoxically, slowing down and focusing on what is happening in front of you right now will make you much more productive, happier and more successful,” Seppala says.
Here are three strategies that can help you kick the successaholism habit and set yourself up for greater fulfillment:
Direct your energy wisely. “Research shows that Westerners and Americans, in particular, thrive on high-intensity positive emotions,” Seppala says. So we put ourselves in situations that produce that high intensity because we believe we need it to succeed. The problem is that high-intensity emotions are physiologically and mentally taxing, she notes. “When we push ourselves to the limit by experiencing high-intensity emotions, exerting too much self-control, or falling prey to worries and false beliefs about what makes us tired, we are draining the energy that’s critical for us to do good work.” A better approach: Managing and preserving your energy by cultivating a continuous state of calm, perhaps through regular meditation. It also helps to detach from work when you’re not working and to practice gratitude regularly.
Learn how to downshift. Instead of constantly operating on overdrive and being addicted to success, taking time to slow down periodically can help you train your nervous system to be more resilient, Seppala says. In fact, regularly practicing relaxing stretching and breathing exercises can produce a state of inner calm and reduce levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in your body. This can help you bounce back from stress more easily and “perhaps even reduce your reactivity in the face of challenges,” Seppala says. Similarly, taking time to engage in fun or novel activities just for the heck of it can be rejuvenating physically and mentally and may even stimulate your creativity and ingenuity.
Cultivate compassion toward yourself and others. Rather than being self-critical or reprimanding yourself when things don’t go well, treat yourself with kindness, patience and understanding, just as you would treat a good friend. One of the best ways to do this is to change the dialogue in your head by offering yourself encouraging words such as “You gave it a good effort” or “You can learn and grow from this.” In a 2015 study involving first-year medical residents, researchers at Ohio State University found that those who rated high in mindfulness and self-compassion were more likely to be resilient and less vulnerable to burnout. Meanwhile, being compassionate toward others — by fully paying attention when someone is talking, being supportive, or verbalizing the other person’s point of view — can help inspire greater engagement and loyalty in your relationships. Besides being rewarding in their own right, these qualities can enhance your productivity, performance and the satisfaction you get from your work, Seppala says.
Ultimately, there’s no downside to ending the mindless pursuit of success and trying to mindfully enjoy the here and now more. Taking these recommended steps can buffer you from stress, protect your health, lead to greater feelings of connection to others, broaden your perspective, and improve your sense of well-being. Think of it as a way of putting yourself back in the driver’s seat of your own life, which is where you should be.
By Stacey Colino