Why accomplishing more won’t make you happier (and what to do about it!)

Takeaway: Accomplishing more won’t actually make you happier in the long-run. The solution? Continually become better, but take it easy on yourself in the process, and recognize where your happiness actually comes from in the first place.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes, 19s.

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Why accomplishing more won’t make you happier

Study after study has shown that when we go through big life changes (positive or negative), even though our happiness will fluctuate at first, it returns to a stable, long-term level.1 In other words, as we make more money, lose weight, or rise higher up the corporate ladder, after adapting to the initial change, we settle back into the same level of happiness. Our “expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness”.2

That means that if you expect to become happier because you make more money, lose weight, get a promotion, or get more work done, research has shown that you’re looking for happiness in the wrong place.

I think your accomplishments and happiness can even have an inverse relationship if you’re not honest enough with yourself, expect too much from yourself, or if you’re too hard on yourself when you don’t meet your goals. At least, that’s what I’ve found so far over the last five months, since starting A Year of Productivity.

What to do about it

I’ve been experimenting with the relationship between productivity and happiness for the better part of five months, and I think I’ve finally cracked how to have both at the same time:

  1. fatherandsonDon’t expect to become happier when you accomplish more, or become more productive. Recognize where your happiness actually comes from, and invest in those areas instead.
  2. Continually try to become better at what you do
  3. Take it easy on yourself!

I’ve researched and experimented a lot over the last several months with these ideas, and with ways of accomplishing them. After quite a bit of trial and error, here are some fantastic ways I’ve found to tackle each!

1. Recognize where your happiness actually comes from

2. Continually try to become better at what you do

That means to:

  • See your achievements as milestones, not endpoints. This will help you see the big picture, and connect your actions with why you want to become productive in the first place. For example, last week TED featured AYOP on their blog! That made my week, and I celebrated the feature, but I still saw it as a stepping stone in the journey of this project.
  • Define why you want to become productive in the first place. If you mindlessly try to become more productive without having a greater goal, how will you know when you’re successful, or if you’re focusing on the right things?
  • Very deliberately pick what you want to get better at. If you try to do a perfect job with everything you do, you’re going to end up taking on too much and not doing a great job at anything. It’s important to become more productive, but it’s even more important to pick what you want to become more productive with in the first place.

3. Take it easy on yourself!

  • Take it easy on yourself, and reward yourself along the way! What’s the point of becoming more productive if it’s a tedious ride to get there? That’s no fun. Take it easy on yourself, and make sure you reward yourself along the way. Celebrate little wins, but see the wins as milestones at the same time.
  • heart-1Understand the trade-offs (costs) of becoming more productive. If you’re not careful, becoming more productive can cost you more than you’re willing to spend in terms of time, willpower, and more. Knowing the costs of becoming more productive will let you question whether becoming more productive is actually worth it in the first place.
  • Don’t stop reading this one because it sounds corny: Love yourself. Not enough people take the time to love, understand, and appreciate themselves. Are you honest with yourself? Do you ask yourself for advice? Do you ever take a few hours and treat yourself to a nice walk, coffee, or art exhibit; just you? I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when they try to become more productive is they’re hard on themselves for essentially no reason. You’re awesome, and you should remind yourself of that every once in a while.

A lot of people want to become sexier, richer, and more productive because they think it will make them happier, but happiness doesn’t work that way. If you keep promising yourself that you’ll only become happy when you’ve accomplished more, you won’t become happier, because when you actually achieve more, your mindset won’t change and you’ll still want more than you have.

I think being productive is essential if you want to live a rewarding life that benefits you and the people around you. But if you don’t take the time to celebrate your successes and enjoy yourself in the process, I’d argue that at the end of the day, you’re not as productive as you think you are.

There’s a disconnect between how a lot of people define productivity (accomplishing more, in less time) and what actually makes a person happy. The trick, I’ve found, is to take it easy on yourself, while continually trying to become better at what you do, and investing time and attention into what actually makes you happy.


  1. Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/business/08consume.html?pagewanted=3&ref=business&src=me&_r=0 

  2. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill 

  • This is why I got so deep into Stoicism (or at least William B. Irvine’s modernization of it.) He talked about hedonic adaptation, which is basically the idea that you talked about in the beginning. “[A]fter adapting to the initial change, we settle back into the same level of happiness.”

    He used two examples. Lottery winners are super happy at first and they buy all these grand things they’ve always wanted. After some time passes they settle back into how they were before and they start taking their new possessions for granted. They buy more hoping to fill that hole again.

    Then he talks about consumer purchases. We buy new cell phones all the time because we feel happy when we do so. Time passes and we’re back to square one. Time to buy a new phone.

    Your suggestions match up with a lot of what Irvine says. :)

    • Good to hear!! It truly is a fascinating field, and I think it’s one of those things that you read, then think “holy shit, why don’t more people realize this/know about this??”

      I find that I have that pattern with a lot of the devices I own – particularly my iPhone. Every year I religiously watch Apple’s iPhone keynote, and think my existing iPhone is a piece of garbage even though it didn’t change one bit. And the times I’ve bought the latest and greatest, when I already had the model from the year before, I wasn’t too happy with my purchase after the excitement wore off.

      I’ve found that it’s only when I upgrade every few years, when my experience of using my phone actually changes, that it changes the way I work in a noticeable way. Even then, though, it probably doesn’t make me any happier :)

  • This is why I got so deep into Stoicism (or at least William B. Irvine’s modernization of it.) He talked about hedonic adaptation, which is basically the idea that you talked about in the beginning. “[A]fter adapting to the initial change, we settle back into the same level of happiness.”

    He used two examples. Lottery winners are super happy at first and they buy all these grand things they’ve always wanted. After some time passes they settle back into how they were before and they start taking their new possessions for granted. They buy more hoping to fill that hole again.

    Then he talks about consumer purchases. We buy new cell phones all the time because we feel happy when we do so. Time passes and we’re back to square one. Time to buy a new phone.

    Your suggestions match up with a lot of what Irvine says. :)

    • Good to hear!! It truly is a fascinating field, and I think it’s one of those things that you read, then think “holy shit, why don’t more people realize this/know about this??”

      I find that I have that pattern with a lot of the devices I own – particularly my iPhone. Every year I religiously watch Apple’s iPhone keynote, and think my existing iPhone is a piece of garbage even though it didn’t change one bit. And the times I’ve bought the latest and greatest, when I already had the model from the year before, I wasn’t too happy with my purchase after the excitement wore off.

      I’ve found that it’s only when I upgrade every few years, when my experience of using my phone actually changes, that it changes the way I work in a noticeable way. Even then, though, it probably doesn’t make me any happier :)

  • Absolutely. I am all for setting goals and striving to achieve. But it is to get the things and lifestyle I desire, not for happiness.

    Unhappy people will likely always be unhappy, unless they fix their mindset, not external things.

    I think what you said about goals is perfect, “See your achievements as milestones, not endpoints.” You can feel good about WHAT you have done. This way you are proud of the PROCESS and what you have done. Not the results, which are transitory and meaningless when it comes to happiness.

    • So happy you picked up on that! It’s funny, because what drove me to be so fascinated by productivity in the first place is that end result – making more money, becoming fitter, etc, even though lasting happiness is somewhere else! :)

  • Absolutely. I am all for setting goals and striving to achieve. But it is to get the things and lifestyle I desire, not for happiness.

    Unhappy people will likely always be unhappy, unless they fix their mindset, not external things.

    I think what you said about goals is perfect, “See your achievements as milestones, not endpoints.” You can feel good about WHAT you have done. This way you are proud of the PROCESS and what you have done. Not the results, which are transitory and meaningless when it comes to happiness.

    • So happy you picked up on that! It’s funny, because what drove me to be so fascinated by productivity in the first place is that end result – making more money, becoming fitter, etc, even though lasting happiness is somewhere else! :)

  • If you try to be happy while chasing your goals then achieving them one day would be like frosting an already tasty cake!

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