March 13, 2018 ・ Written by Sara Muchoney

Have Your Success and Your Happiness, Too

What I’ve learned about finding your way as a high-achiever

Have Your Success and Your Happiness, Too

This advice is shared by BrightCrowd member Sara Muchoney

Being a pre-med is notoriously tough. But from what I’ve seen, life doesn’t necessarily get easier when you’re out of med school and sitting at the top of your field.

In my experiences working in hospitals and labs I’ve encountered a trend. Even the most high-performing, successful doctors have the same problem. They can be CEOs or world-renowned researchers, but they still suffer from an immense success/happiness gap.

As a pre-med myself, I became interested in learning how to ensure that high achievement doesn’t come at the expense of my happiness. That’s how I ended up in a class at BU developed by Dr. Zsuzsanna Varhelyi about happiness. I’m here to share what I learned, so others can avoid the happiness gap.

Happiness Starts at Home

Though pursuit of success is seen as the key to a good life, this belief can go too far. When parents over-emphasize a narrow definition of success, this can have a negative impact on adolescents’ mental health. Some psychologists believe high-pressure parenting, common in high-income households, has contributed to the rise in mental health problems among young people.

When affection and positive feedback are contingent upon achievement, teenagers are set up for grave emotional consequences when they experience failure. Because it’s simply not possible to come out on top every time, emotional reliance on success becomes problematic in the real world, where failure is a fact of life.

How Success Can Hinder Happiness

Even self-motivated high achievers struggle to find happiness.

Since the age of 13 Jenn Cohen dreamt of making it big in the circus. In her TEDx Talk she reveals that after she accomplished her lifelong dream, she was left feeling empty. Her greatest joy now seemed to be the root of her depression. Jenn had to learn as an adult that happiness and self-worth come from within, not from the trappings of career success.

She had ran headfirst into hedonic adaptation - a well-documented phenomenon where people adjust to improvements in quality of life, quickly returning to their previous happiness level. It’s true in lottery winners and paraplegics alike. We’ve all taken a run on the hedonic treadmill at one time or another, and perhaps learned that happiness is easier said than done.

High levels of achievement can come with a unique set of battles. Guilt, isolation, and fear of failure are psychological issues frequently faced by materially secure, successful people. Time pressures, constant travel, and difficult workplace dynamics can add complications to an already fraught emotional landscape.

Imposter syndrome is common across demographics of high-achievers - if you’ve felt it, you’re not alone.

What You Can Do to Be Happy

Psychologists have theorized that there is a particular happiness set point for each person that’s determined by genetics and early life experiences. Your set point may be lower than another person’s - and that is OK. It can help to reset your expectations, and stop comparing your happiness to others’.

That’s not to say that your happiness set point can’t change with effort, or that a successful career precludes happiness. Here are some things you can do to move the needle:

  • Self-reflection - If you’re feeling down about a setback or a period of stagnation, take a moment to reflect on past achievements- no matter how big or small. Acknowledge your high-points, the hard work that got you where you are today, and moments of happiness along the way that weren’t solely a product of success. Your journey has probably taught you some pretty cool things and introduced you to awesome people – take the time to remember it.
  • Meditation - Studies have found that one hour of meditation per day can lead to a higher happiness set point.
  • “Flow” - Flow is a highly focused mental state, first recognized by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As he explains in his TED talk, finding this state in work, art, or personal activities can increase overall happiness.
  • Therapy - A professional outside perspective can be helpful to fine-tune your emotional life, even when you’re doing OK. Find a therapist if you think it’s right for you.
  • Medication - If you’re experiencing clinical depression, medications can be effective in lifting or stabilizing your mood. Of course, speak with your doctor if you think you may be depressed.

It’s important to remember that happiness takes work, even for the well-adjusted. There’s no shame in seeking professional help when you need it – but if you’re nervous, speak with a trusted friend or family member. They may be able to share their experience and help you remember that you’re in good company. We’re all chasing happiness, in one way or another.

(And as we come up on MCAT season, I hope these reminders help my fellow pre-med students, especially!)


Sara is a student, researcher, and wanderer. While her focus is on medicine, she also enjoys dabbling in evolution, plant genetics, child development, the classics, and cold-brews. Curious about happiness? You can write to her on BrightCrowd!