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The Science Of Success


June 30, 2022

An interesting article from the WSJ. “Success” is such a nebulous word — it has so many different meanings. There is financial success which seems to be how this study defined success. But what specifically is the goal line of financial success? There is athletic success, relationship success, health success and success as described by this poem:

Here’s the WSJ article:

Does success make us miserable?

Sigmund Freud was one of the first to propose this peculiar form of distress in an essay he published more than a century ago. It was a theory built around a few case studies: a patient who fell into depression after earning a promotion at work, another patient who fell apart when she married her longtime partner—and Lady Macbeth, who was not his patient. They were, as Freud famously put it, “wrecked by success.”

There are so many examples of this paradox these days that it’s easy for anyone to delude themselves into believing the most successful are the least happy.

The notion became pervasive enough that a team of psychologists decided they should figure out whether Freud’s hypothesis in his 1916 essay “Some Character-Types Met With in Psycho-Analytic Work” was actually true. And they had one big advantage over everybody who tried solving this particular mystery of success before them.

“We had a lot more data,” said David Lubinski, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. “This was data that was not available and really unimaginable in Freud’s time.”

The source of that data was an extraordinary project called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, a 50-year longitudinal survey of gifted students overseen by Dr. Lubinski and Camilla P. Benbow at Vanderbilt. Tracking the same population of talented individuals over extended periods starting in 1972, from when they were children with potential to when they had children of their own, has proven to be valuable in all sorts of unpredictable ways. These psychologists have the answers to many riveting questions about human behavior. Their job is figuring out what to ask.

After using Freud’s question as inspiration and taking a decade to dig through their data on 2,322 people, they recently reported their contrarian and provocative findings about success.

“It doesn’t make us unhappy,” Dr. Lubinski said. “People who choose to be highly successful in their careers shouldn’t worry that they’re putting themselves at risk for medical or psychological harm.”

This might sound intuitive to anyone other than Freud. Of course success doesn’t make us unhappy! But what’s remarkable is how counterintuitive it happens to be.

Nobody would describe a time of war, disease and financial pain as pleasant. This is an age when billionaires who could be sailing their yachts into blissful solitude have become screaming maniacs on social media instead. If success is driven by a lack of fulfillment, many aren’t fulfilled by their success. And that’s more torturing than failure.

Maybe you’ve felt this yourself. More likely is that you can think of someone who is existentially anguished despite getting a promotion or making a fortune or plotting bloody regicide to become the Queen of Scotland. It’s a curious part of modern life that the very successful and vocally miserable stand out more than the ones who admit they are content.

This is how the human mind works. We see exceptions and spin them into rules. We take slices of information and make sweeping conclusions, as another pair of psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, found in their pioneering work on judgment and decision-making.

But close readings of Shakespearean characters and compelling anecdotes disguised as scientific evidence are no match for mountains of data—and the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth is Everest.

“This is probably the largest study of its kind,” said Frank Worrell, a University of California, Berkeley professor and president of the American Psychological Association.

A longitudinal study monitors people and the factors that influence them over time, and maybe the most famous one would never describe itself that way. It’s a series of documentaries starting in the 1960s that have followed the same group of British people since they were 7 years old (“Seven Up!”) every seven years through the present (“63 Up”). Those movies actually have a lot in common with the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth.

“Except we have more participants,” Dr. Lubinski said.

Work by psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown that when it comes to judgment and decision-making, people are often biased by the first examples that easily come to mind.

The SMPY was founded by Julian Stanley, an educational psychologist who died in 2005. By then, the husband-and-wife team of Dr. Lubinski and Dr. Benbow were running the study. They had inherited thousands of exceptional individuals worth tracking over a half-century. The oldest participants were identified between 1972 and 1983 based on their SAT scores, which means children whose talents were spotted before they were teenagers are now adults in their 50s and 60s.

The subjects were asked not long ago to complete the latest round of surveys as they entered midlife because the psychologists had figured out what question they wanted to ask: Is there a link between success and unhappiness?

By scrutinizing the lives and careers of 1,826 people in their first study, using income as the closest proxy for success, the researchers found that Freud had slipped. The exceptionally successful were not unhappy. In fact, if anything, the opposite: They were healthier and happier than the unsuccessful.

They reached this conclusion by analyzing three cohorts of SMPY participants and sorting them by gender lines and their levels of giftedness. They looked at their salaries, marriages, feelings of self-esteem, attitudes on aging, psychological distress levels, rankings on a variety of scales that calculate well-being and 44 different health conditions.

The authors of this month’s paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science could have published the results of that first study years ago. They didn’t. Instead, they wanted to check their own results, which meant they needed to find another group of comparable subjects nearing their 50th birthdays. They wouldn’t have to search very far or wait very long. More data was on the way.

In almost every way the psychologists could think to measure, there was no connection between the subjects’ success and unhappiness.

The next wave of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth was recruited by Dr. Lubinski and Dr. Benbow three decades ago, when the subjects were elite STEM doctoral candidates at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Caltech, MIT and other top graduate schools.

They, too, defied Freud. In almost every way the psychologists could think to measure—their physical and mental health, the quality of their relationships, their overall satisfaction with life—there was no connection between their success and unhappiness.

Any psychologist can see how clever this longitudinal study is, but there is also something beautiful about how it has unfolded. It was originally designed as an experiment in educational interventions. It developed into something more profound.

When I spoke with Dr. Lubinski, I couldn’t resist an obvious question. His team had just finished a project that was many years in the making. How did he feel about this success?

“I’m so happy,” he said.

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