How is success more important than happiness?

Why happiness is much more important than most people think

We should remember that personal success is very often a matter of chance, says economist Robert H. Frank - and asks for more gratitude.

I've been very lucky in my life. Especially on that cool November morning in 2007, when I was playing tennis in the town of Ithaca, New York. My partner later told me that I had complained of mild nausea in the middle of the second sentence. Shortly afterwards, I was lying lifeless on the tennis court. I had no more pulse than the ambulance
arrived.

It came exceptionally quickly. Ordinarily an ambulance would have had to cross town once before it was with me. That he was there immediately: coincidence, luck. Right before I collapsed, the emergency services had been called in a nearby car accident. But there were no seriously injured people to be cared for there. The paramedics picked me up instead. I was in cardiac arrest. Almost 90 percent of those affected die from it, the remainder can often only continue to live with considerable restrictions.

But I was released on the fourth day, and two weeks later I played tennis again. Had this ambulance not been nearby - by chance - I would never have survived. Most fortunate coincidences reveal themselves far less dramatically than these. We often do not even recognize them as such. Or do not want to recognize them because we resist the idea that success can be based on chance. The Washington polling institute Pew Center found that people with higher incomes in particular are firmly convinced that their prosperity is based solely on hard work.

Psychologists know this effect: We imagine that success is the result of our planning and our own commitment - when it is often just a stroke of luck. One of the people who recognizes this perception error very well is the successful author Michael Lewis. He sees his own ascent as a chain of happy coincidences. In the mid-1980s, he told Princeton University graduates, he happened to be sitting at dinner next to the wife of an influential Wall Street banker. She urged her husband to get Lewis a job in the derivatives department at Salomon Brothers.

The company would later be at the center of a market manipulation scandal. Based on his observations at the company, Lewis wrote the book "Wall Street Poker". It became a bestseller. Lewis: "Suddenly people were raving that I was a born writer. Total nonsense! I happened to come to a place from which I had an unobstructed view of the madness of Wall Street. But people don't want to hear that, they expect rational ones Explanations."

After all, we work hard every day - why should luck of all things bring us forward? We like to assign familiar patterns to events whose consequences are difficult to grasp and control. Career planning is manageable, the principle of chance is not.

And yet another effect influences our self-perception. A friend, the tennis partner from my fateful match in Ithaca, compares it with experiences we know from sport: "You feel when you jog against the wind. You can't wait for it to change direction and you have it behind you When the time comes, it feels great. Soon you won't even notice the tail wind. This is how our minds work. We perceive obstacles much more clearly than things that push us. "

We Americans and Europeans are entering life with a powerful tailwind

The coincidence of being born in a highly developed country is the ultimate jump start. I often think of Birkhaman Rai, the cook during my time as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Nepal. He was extremely talented, could thatched roofs, repair clocks and bargain harshly without scaring off his partner. But no one had ever taught him to read or write. Having grown up in an industrialized nation, he would certainly have become wealthy, perhaps even spectacularly successful.

To be born into a conducive environment is a great gift. In order to create and maintain this environment, huge public investments are required - in education, the infrastructure. For that we have to pay taxes.

Scientific studies, however, suggest the following: Anyone who believes they are "the smith of their own fortune", who thinks they are a "self-made man", is less generous,
less oriented towards the common good. A recent study by political scientists comes to the conclusion that the richest Americans are the most vehemently opposed to the influences and claims of the state. They forget that public investment made their own rise in the first place.

Fortunately, this state of ignorance can be changed. People can be moved to recognize happiness as the cause of their success, as an experiment by economist Yuezhou Huo shows.

Talk about happiness!

She confronted two groups of test persons with a positive event in their lives. The first should list external factors that would have caused it, which others cite purely personal reasons for it. Then all participants could decide whether to donate part of the amount of money they received at the beginning of the experiment to charity. Results: Those who listed external causes - luck, for example - gave 25 percent more than those who attributed the success to themselves. Overall, when we are reminded of the importance of happiness, we are more inclined to be generous.

And what's more: Those who reflect on their happiness in life not only become more generous, but also - even happier. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked test subjects to keep a diary in their study. The first group was asked to write down circumstances and experiences for which they were grateful, the second to write down everything that appeared to be a nuisance. After nine weeks, the researchers noticed changes within the first group: its members described themselves as more open-minded and passionate, and generally reported a greater zest for life.

We economists often talk about scarcity. The principle is ineffective in the realm of human emotions, fortunately. Because gratitude is a currency that we can spend lavishly. We do not have to fear bankruptcy in gratitude.

So: talk about happiness! If you dig deeper, you can get everyone to reconsider their entire life story - and to remember the lucky coincidences on their life path. Which is good because: happiness can be contagious!

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