Psychologists have established a solid link between happiness and success. Happier people earn more money, perform better, and are more helpful to their coworkers. Most people assume that this link exists because people feel happy when they are successful. But actually, the scientific evidence suggests that happiness often precedes success, and that fostering happiness and other positive emotions can lead to better performance.

Happiness obviously isn't the only, or even the most important, factor when it comes to achieving greatness. Though Tiger Woods might golf better because he's a happy person (I have no idea) no one would say he rose to greatness on the back of happiness.

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Instead, most people would point, emphatically, to Woods' incredible talent. But researchers across a wide array of fields have produced remarkably consistent findings: innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being good at something to being truly great.

People who rise to greatness tend to have five things in common:

  1. They practice hard, in a really specific way. Nobody makes the list of true greats effortlessly. Accomplished people devote hours upon hours to what researchers define as "deliberate practice." This isn't just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond your reach.
  2. They practice consistently. K. Anders Ericsson, author of a landmark study on this topic, says that "elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends." Knocking out a bucket of balls on the weekend isn't going to make you a great golfer but doing it every day might.
  3. They gain experience over the long haul; researchers call it the 10-year-rule. Most successful people average ten years of practice and experience before becoming truly accomplished. Even child-prodigies generally work at it for a decade or more. Bobby Fischer became a chess grandmaster at 16 years old, but he'd been studying since he was 7. Tiger Woods had been working on his golf game for 15 years when he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship.
  4. Most greats have had significant failures–it goes with the territory. J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers. Michael Jordan was cut from his high-school varsity basketball team. The great receiver Jerry Rice was judged as slow, and was passed up by 15 teams. But all three of these people became known for their perseverance and hard work. (Rowling delivered an incredibly moving commencement speech about embracing failure at Harvard; watch it here if you haven't seen it already!)
  5. Great performers have been shown to believe that their persistent effort will lead to success; researchers call this self-efficacy. Parents and teachers can build self-efficacy in kids by giving them effective encouragement (vs. empty praise), by helping them find effective strategies for mastering an activity, and by helping kids model their practices on the behavior of others who have succeeded.

Will stunning success bring your kids true happiness? Probably not. But knowing that it is practice that makes a person successful rather than innate talent can help kids take the risks they need to in order to rise to the top of their field. More than that, though, research shows that seeing effort as the key to success helps kids enjoy their activities a whole lot more than they do when they are worried about proving their special talent to the world.

© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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JKR's Commencement speech at Harvard


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Instilling in your child the belief that success in life is due to hard work rather than luck or inherited traits is a parenting behavior generally recognized as supporting the healthy development of children.
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GGSC’s stated goal is to expand social well-being in the world.  GGSC also believes that social well-being in communities begins with well-being in children and families.  GGSC’s effort to expand social well-being by disseminating parenting information seems pedestrian at best.  Internet sites that provide parenting information are a dime a dozen.  If Greater Good truly wants to improve the quality of parenting in communities there are more effective ways to go about it.
Parenting behaviors and practices generally recognized as supporting the healthy physical, emotional, and intellectual development of children need to be taught as a matter of course to everyone.  Questions to consider are:  How should parenting be taught?  Who should do the teaching?  Who should receive the instruction?
Community-based parenting education could be a tremendously powerful and proactive tool for preventing child abuse, substance abuse, and other forms of violence.
GGSC ought to take the lead!

David | 4:34 pm, August 26, 2008 | Link


This is great, Christine — I hope that more parents will take to heart the findings of Ecicsson (and of Carol Dweck, et al.), stop overpraising their kids, and start emphasizing the virtues — and fun! — of working hard to get better at something.
I’ve added the link for this post to a page of links I’ve been collecting on deliberate practice — it’s embedded in my name. I’ll also promote this on Twitter.

Tim Walker | 4:58 pm, August 26, 2008 | Link


My daughter started her own magazine business at ag 13.  Today she is 17 and a busy entrepreneur.  People often ask: how did raise such an amazing kids who is ambitious, but humble, confident, poised, and not swayed by materialism and pop culture?  While I think my daughter was born with certain traits and talents, I believe my husband and I had something to do with nurturing them.  Here are some pointers in a nutshell: very limited tv in the early years, being read to from a variety of books, especially those above her reading level, feeding her curiosity, not matter what the topic, providing materials to create, build, and explore, offering her a moral compass and positive spiritual community. I hope you’ll take a look at her website to see what she has created.

Evelyn Krieger | 5:03 pm, October 22, 2008 | Link


This is definitely positive and makes logical sense, but I’d love to know the sources and the experiments involved in coming up with the findings.

Matt | 6:52 pm, March 18, 2010 | Link

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