A new study has rebutted a famous Freudian idea that successful people are doomed to unhappiness by proving that people in highly successful careers are as happy or happier than others, amongst other findings. Despite Freud’s ideas, it seems that while some can certainly suffer from increased pressure and success, the average person may be significantly better off for it.
Sigmund Freud, despite being the founder of psychoanalysis, was known for some seriously strange ideas (you know, the whole fancying your own mother/father thing). So it’s no surprise that plenty of people revel in proving him wrong. One of Freud’s most prominent ideas was the notion that one can be “wrecked by success”: successful people are often unhappy as a result, he theorized, giving examples of a man who desperately tried to fill his mentor’s shoes, only to fall into depression and mental illness.
Freud wasn’t the only one to notice this perceived phenomenon, with Steven Berglas famously publishing his book “The Success Syndrome”, explaining how people “reach the bottom when they reach the top”. This was the fullest characterization of Freud’s ideas, focusing on how people at the top of their careers often fall into self-destructive tendencies or mental illness as a result of the rewards of their success.
It’s easy to understand why this idea gained so much traction – celebrities becoming victim to substance abuse seemed almost inevitable not too long ago, and people carrying heavy burdens in business often described the struggle that comes with it. However, the new research suggests this may have just been the case for a vocal minority.
To investigate, researchers took three cohorts of 1,826 high-potential intellectuals and compared those in exceptional careers with those in more typical careers. Psychological well-being and general metrics of happiness were taken, as well as metrics of health.
Across all cohorts, those in highly successful careers were as happy and healthy (or more so) compared to their peers. In a second study that took people in highly-stressful, elite STEM fields and compared them to peers, they found that careers did not impact participants' interpersonal relationships or psychological well-being, and they were often actually better off.
“Both studies found that exceptionally successful careers were not associated with medical frailty, psychological maladjustment, and compromised interpersonal and family relationships; if anything, overall, people with exceptionally successful careers were medically and psychologically better off,” the authors write.
The results suggest that Freud was wrong and the opposite may actually be true – success may breed more happiness than a typical career. There were interesting differences in the families that successful people had compared to their peers: successful men had more children, were married more often, and divorced less; while successful women had fewer children compared to their peers.
The study was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.