Widgets Magazine

Q&A with Emma Seppala on ‘successaholism’

Emma Seppala Ph.D. ’09 is the Science Director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her recent book “The Happiness Track” details the phenomenon of “successaholism,” which Seppala argues rules American culture at the expense of mental health. On Tuesday, The Daily spoke with Seppala about achievement, work culture and the ways in which Stanford breeds unhappiness.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What is the basic concept of successaholism?

Emma Seppala (ES): A lot of people have the misconception that in order to be happy, you have to be successful, and as a consequence, they also have the bigger misconception that they have to sacrifice their own happiness in order to be successful. In fact, I’ll give you an example about a Stanford student that’s very relevant … a Stanford student came up to [another professor teaching a class on happiness] and said, “I can’t take this class, it goes against everything I’ve learned.” [The professor] said, “What do you mean?” The student said, “My parents told me I have to be very successful … and to do that, I have to work very, very hard. When I asked, ‘How do I know I’m working hard enough?’ [My parents] said, ‘Because you’re suffering.’”

TSD: Wow.

ES: I know, wow. And yet, I’m sure you can look around and see a lot of people who feel that way at Stanford and other high-achieving places … [But] when you look at the data, the data says they’re wrong. If they prioritize their own well-being, they’ll be more creative, more focused, more charismatic, have better relationships with other people, which in turn makes us more successful in the long run.

TSD: Where does that phenomenon start for Stanford students?

ES: The U.S. is driven by the Puritan work ethic, which originally meant you had to prove your worth in the eyes of God, and therefore you [had] to do that through work … The other thing is that we’re an immigrant culture. Our ancestors were all very industrious people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. That’s one of the reasons the U.S. is one of the most creative, productive places in the world today. We’ve just brought that to a fault. That’s why we’re seeing 50 percent burnout across industries; people are working and they don’t know how to define themselves outside of work … You get a very short burst from an award, promotion, new job, this or that, but it’s not a lasting fulfillment. Our greatest sense of fulfillment comes from a sense of contribution to others — leading a purpose in our life, positive social connections with other people. That’s really what leads to lasting fulfillment, [and] if we prioritize that, we will be more successful because we’ll be happier, healthier, more focused, more creative.

TSD: In [a] society that pushes successaholism and this intense work ethic on us all the time, how do you deal with that in your daily life and break the mold?

ES: You can’t really control what’s coming at you; you can’t control the demands of your work. The only thing you really have a say over is the state of your own mind. That’s where I talk a lot about the need to build resilience. We’re living in a high-adrenaline mode, always working, over-caffeinated, over-scheduled, waiting till the last minute to get things done … One of the ways to build resilience is to really to tap into the other side of our nervous system, the side that calms us down — the parasympathetic nervous system — as opposed to the fight-or-flight. When we start to do that, we start to build a lot of inner strength and resilience, so we can be more stable, more calm, more grounded in the face of oncoming demands around you.

The reason I started this research on happiness was, honestly, in my first year as a Ph.D. student at Stanford, there were three suicides. I was biking down Palm Drive thinking, we’re in the most beautiful, sunny campus in the world, learning from the greatest scholars, and people are so unhappy they’re ending their lives … I have a really special connection with Stanford students in particular because I’ve seen the drive and the ambition, but I’ve also seen that there’s sometimes not that inner joy. And what’s the point, if there’s not that inner joy? More importantly, this misconception that you have to suffer to be successful is just plain wrong, if you look at the data.

TSD: Many Stanford students would respond by saying “I don’t know how to be successful any other way,” so how can you be successful and not be a successaholic?

ES: That’s why I wrote “The Happiness Track,” because I really wanted to break it down for people and give practical tips … One example is that a lot of people tend to be very self-critical, and there’s this idea that self-criticism leads to self-improvement … But if you look at the data, self-criticism is self-sabotage. Imagine that you’re training for a marathon, and you trip and fall. Someone on the sidelines says, “You’re not a runner, you’re such an idiot, you can’t even finish this.” How do you feel in that moment? Can you go on? Versus someone on the sidelines says, “Everybody falls — it’s so normal. You can do this. Get right back up, you’re doing great.” Think about the difference in the feeling of that. Self-criticism is like that first scenario, and that’s what research shows that it does to us — it makes us more anxious, more depressed, and more importantly, when we deal with failure or make mistakes, which we all do, it can break us down. But if we have self-compassion, the ability to treat yourself as you would a friend, you’re more resilient, you learn from your mistakes.

TSD: Do you see any positive effects of successaholism?

ES: Everyone who got into Stanford knows [the positive effects] really well. There’s no question about that. The question is whether … all these talented, inquisitive, interesting students are also happy. They can make such a bigger impact on society. Research shows if you’re happy, you impact three degrees of separation around you. So if you are happy, your roommate’s brother’s girlfriend is happier.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited.


Contact Fiona Kelliher at fionak ‘at’ stanford.edu.