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The Paradox of (Financial) Success

success doesn't bring happiness
❝When you chase money, you're going to lose...Even if you get the money, you're not going to be happy.❞ -Gary Vaynerchuk

I'm on my way to the gym listening to a podcast. It's snowing out, and I have to drive a little slower than I usually do. As I'm driving, I'm careful not to come to a complete stop because otherwise, I'll get stuck in the snow. Essentially I'm stuck between not going too fast and not going too slow.

While I'm driving at the appropriate Goldilocks speed, the podcast host talks about the television program, BoJack Horseman. Specifically, he wonders if the show has it right; he wonders if we have to either be a Zoe or a Zelda. He explains that in the show, a character named Zelda is happy, optimistic, and generally likes life in people. Another character is Zoe, who is pessimistic, generally sad, and often in a bad mood. The question they raise in the show is whether or not we are born as a Zoe or a Zelda, or if we can change.

This idea is fascinating to me, and I've heard of the show before, but I haven't watched it. I convince my wife that BoJack Horseman is worth a try. As we're watching it, we find out that the show is about a very successful actor who is unhappy by nature. He's unhappy even though he has all the money he could ever want. He's unhappy even though he has one of the best houses in Hollywood. He's unhappy even though he has many awards, fans, and followers. Throughout the show, he continues to strive for more success, thinking that maybe then he'll be happy, but he never is. Then he starts to think that maybe there's something wrong with him because he should be happy, but he's not.

As I'm watching the show, I start to realize that this is a common phenomenon. Of course, we're not all successful actors, but we are all pursuing something that we feel will make us successful, and many of us hope the happiness will follow when we get there.

The curious paradox is that, in all likelihood, the main character becomes less happy as he gains more success. This is because, before he had the success, there was hope that he would be happy when he became successful. Once he became successful, he realized that there was nothing there.

The way to win this game is to not play it. Instead of pursuing success or money, we ought to pursue happiness. And since everyone is different, we all have the opportunity to play our own game.


Intuitively, it feels like success should make us happy, whatever success means to us. Success could mean career success, marital success, personal success, or financial success. It's intuitive because it follows a formula. If I set a goal, take steps to achieve the goal, and succeed at attaining my goal, I've accomplished what I set out to do. That is, I should be happy.

The paradox is that once we achieve what we set out to achieve, we can sustain the happiness that comes along with our success for only a short time. It is fleeting. Then we find ourselves back at where we started. Then we have to set a new goal, hope to achieve that, only to find out that that didn't bring us lasting happiness either.

Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation, where we adapt to our new surroundings very quickly. We get used to things.