What comes first: luck or success?


It’s a chicken-and-the-egg question. What comes first: luck or success? Does success make you happy or does happiness make you more successful?

That’s the question Paul Lester, associate professor of management at the Naval Postgraduate School; Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center; and the late Ed Diener, an influential American psychologist, tried to answer.

For five years, the researchers followed nearly 1 million US Department of Defense employees in all job functions. They measured their relative happiness and optimism using questions from the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule and the Life Orientation Test (tools used by the military to measure wellbeing) and compared them to the number of awards an employee deserves Has. Your Insights “Happy soldiers are top performers“, appear in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

“When management makes the decision to nominate you for an award, there’s a pretty rigorous process that has to go through before it’s actually presented to anyone,” says Lester. “Of around one million employees, only 12.6% have received an award. These are not participation prizes; Receiving an award is rare.”

The Happiness Effect

Those with the highest positive impact on well-being had almost four times as many awards as those in the group with the lowest well-being scores. The researchers also found that while negative emotions such as sadness and anger predicted fewer awards, there were also low levels of positive emotions.

“We were able to focus on the impact of satisfaction as a predictor of performance,” says Lester. “High negative feelings impair good performance, and high optimism predicts a greater likelihood of superior job performance.”

The bottom line of the study is that you don’t have to be successful to be happy, and you don’t have to be happy to be successful. People who might be considered unhappy compared to their peers still received awards for their performance, but they earned them at a lower percentage than people who were overall happy.

“Luck might give you a greater chance of being successful,” says Lester. “Skills, knowledge, skills – all of these are very important. And we’re not saying that happiness is more important than all these other things. We show that happiness is a measurable performance indicator.”

What that means for you

The study results have applications in the civilian world. The Department of Defense is the largest single employer in the world, with about 190 different types of jobs, from truck drivers and pilots to doctors and lawyers. The researchers were able to examine a wide range of fields and demographics, race, gender, tenure and job characteristics.

“That’s what made the study so special, not just its depth but also its breadth,” says Lester.

Because happiness can be a precursor to success, Lester and his fellow researchers encourage companies to focus on employee well-being and optimism. “Happiness is important and should be measured,” he says. “In a way, it’s a proxy for the health of the organization itself. It’s valuable to measure and develop.”

Instead of relying on management’s intuition, start using assessment tools with current employees as well as potential hires to measure wellbeing, optimism, and overall satisfaction. Many organizations already use behavioral screening to evaluate job applicants. If it does not contain questions about happiness and optimism, then it should be updated with this item.

Organizations should also watch out for toxic leaders and employees who can create dissatisfaction in others, hamper performance and lead to increased attrition. Training managers to better manage employees can be helpful, although more stringent measures, such as layoffs, may be needed to protect the team’s overall mental health.

Another step you need to take is to foster employee happiness. Lester and the researchers suggest implementing simple exercises, such as B. Encouraging employees to show gratitude to someone who changed their lives for the better. Or have employees write down three things that went well every day for a week. Previous research by Seligman has shown that this Positive interventions can increase happiness and reduce depressive symptoms.

Finally, Lester says leaders should have a focus on wellbeing. “If leaders want to improve employee satisfaction, they need to shape what they learn in a way that integrates it into the lexicon and culture of the organization,” he says. “We learn best by observing other people. The big advantage is that the satisfaction of your employees counts. Yes, objective performance measurements are important to the organization. This is why your organization exists for whatever reason. But in the end, one gauge of how well your company is doing is assessing the overall happiness of your employees.” What comes first: luck or success?


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