The Five Pillars of Well-Being #5: AccomplishmentJune 20 , 2013

Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, describes the five pillars of well-being as PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment).  I was laying these out for you several months ago (you can review these posts starting here) but got pulled into some very cool recent research on stress that I needed to share.

The final pillar, accomplishment, is an easy one to understand.  An important part of many people’s lives is the pursuit of success, accomplishment, winning, achievement and mastery.  What makes it a separate pillar from Seligman’s perspective is that people sometimes pursue it for its own sake rather than simply to support their happiness or the meaning they find in the activity.

It’s also one of the more controversial of the pillars.  The other 4 are universally supported as central to well-being and have the lots of data to back up their importance.  But — surprisingly — there isn’t much data about how accomplishment directly impacts well-being.  This is rather ironic given our society’s obsession with accomplishment leading to happiness, right?  Part of the issue is how easy it is — particularly in Western society — to get lost in the pursuit of success and lose its connection to well-being.  Our society and our employers push us to drive harder and faster and to “be all you can be”.  And that often comes at the expense of other important parts of well-being.  We all know the work-a-holic archetype – too busy at work for family, friends, self-care or fun, which all contribute to the more data-driven pillars of well-being.

How to do it

The paths to accomplishment and success are often laid out (painfully) clearly for us either through work or through our own desires for change.

But one of the challenges is that we often change our definition of success as we go.  As we get closer to our original target, we (or our supervisors) often move the goals farther out, robbing us of that sense of accomplishment that we’d hoped for.   Research suggests that by setting lots of small goals along the way and celebrating each milestone, you will both feel accomplished and maintain your motivation. This incremental approach — not a “when I am CEO, I’ll be happy!” perspective — is the key to making accomplishment work for you.

My Experience

My story is likely familiar to many of you; it may be yours as well.  Accomplishment and achievement was my primary purpose for the first 35 years of my life.  I knew I wanted to be successful so I worked and worked and worked.  In school and professionally, I was so focused on the achievement – the good grades, getting into good schools, finding sought-after jobs and being promoted that I lost track of enjoying what I was doing.  Everything was simply a step on the path to achievement and each success was met with even more aggressive goals.  This constant push for more and better accomplishments caused intense anxiety and insomnia which completely destroyed my own well-being.   Over the last year I’ve learned to temper that constant perfectionist drive with a more balanced approach, setting more incremental goals and making sure I take time to savor, share and revel in the accomplishment of even tiny things, like figuring out how to post video clips of my speaking gigs (trust me, it was an accomplishment).  In the past, I wouldn’t have broken stride in my constant quest to get even more and bigger things done.

Take Home Message

Whether or not accomplishment is a central part of well-being is less relevant than where it fits in your life.  We’ll always have things we want to get done and areas of our lives where we want to be successful.  You get to decide how much you are going to let that drive you.  Take a good look at your own compulsions around accomplishment.  Successfully going after challenges can be a great path towards well-being as long as it’s tempered with the other important things in your life.

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach

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