The Progress Principle: How to Be Happy at Work and In Life


Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

– Henry David Thoreau

What is the true key to happiness? Is it fame? Is it high status? Is it a good reputation? Is it money or fortune? Is it that new big house or that amazing car?


People have many hopes and dreams, goals and needs.

Given that, we believe that once we’ll get all that we want, we’re going to be happy. And even though that might give us a sense of pleasure, evidence to the contrary suggests that it’s not “stuff” that will make us happy.

Indeed, history, science, and real life experience shows us that lasting happiness comes from one single element: progress. And this is what we’ll talk about today.

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Why “Stuff” Won't Make You Happy

We are so bad at predicting what will make us happy, or how we’re going to feel in the future. This is actually a phenomenon that psychologists call “affective forecasting.”

We overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Even though we think that buying a new house, a new car or winning the lottery will make us happy, in reality, that’s all subject to the adaptation principle:

"People's judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they have become accustomed." (Source)

Two psychologists — Brickman and Campbell — have coined a term for this phenomenon in 1971, called hedonic treadmill. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at The University of Virginia, and author of the insightful book The Happiness Hypothesis explains it this way:

On an exercise treadmill you can increase the speed all you want, but you stay in the same place. In life, you can work as hard as you want, and accumulate all the riches, fruit trees, and concubines you want, but you can’t get ahead. Because you can’t change your “natural and usual state of tranquility,” the riches you accumulate will just raise your expectations and leave you no better off than you were before.

Yet, not realizing the futility of our efforts, we continue to strive, all the while doing things that help us win at the game of life. Always wanting more than we have, we run and run and run, like hamsters on a wheel.

In other words, as you make more money, your expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Whatever happens, you’re likely to adapt to it, but you don’t realize up front that you will.

Thus, a question arises: What brings real and lasting happiness?

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The Progress Principle: The Key to Happiness at Work and in Life

Here’s the key insight in a nutshell: As human beings, we feel the most joy and fulfillment when we make progress towards something meaningful in our lives.

In the same book, Jonathan Haidt says:

The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. Yet people sometimes do just this.

They work hard at a task and expect some special euphoria at the end. But when they achieve success and find only moderate and short-lived pleasure, they ask: Is that all there is? They devalue their accomplishments as a striving after wind.

We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.

Isn’t it interesting?

Just think about it: You get a promotion, finish a significant project, or achieve a meaningful goal and this gives you an instant positive emotional boost. Almost euphoric you might say.

But how long does it last? An hour, a day, maybe two? Or maybe a week at the very most?

You see, more often than not, when success is within reach, we start building expectations. And when some final event confirms what we’ve already begun to expect, we typically feel a sense of relief and the pleasure of finally reaching the goal we’ve set for ourselves.

We celebrate momentarily and then we ask: What’s next?

Haidt put it this way:

When it comes to goal pursuit, it is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer.

Put simply: What we become in pursuit of what we want is infinitely more important than what we get after reaching our goals.

What we become in pursuit of what we want is infinitely more important than what we get after reaching our goals.

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America’s foremost business philosopher Jim Rohn said it best:

"Success is not something you pursue. What you pursue will elude you. It can be like trying to chase butterflies. Success is something you attract and accumulate by the person you become."


There's nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of money, fancy cars, big houses, private jets, power, fame, reputation, you name it.

All I'm saying is that we need to have the right expectations in place, mainly that these things will not make us as happy as we think they will. They will only give us a short burst of pleasure, which will soon fade out because of the adaptation principle explained earlier, you follow?

What's more important than what you're getting is who you're becoming along the way.

Ultimately, real and lasting fulfillment comes from growth. If you don’t grow, you’ll never be happy. It is who we become in the process that brings us lasting happiness. And the paradox is that if you’ll focus on becoming a better version of yourself one day at a time, success and happiness will come as a by-product.

As Jim Rohn beautifully remarked: "Don’t wish it was easier; wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems; wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge; wish for more wisdom."

So focus daily on growing in every major area of your life: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

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progress works best when it is linked to a higher life purpose or mission in life

In one research that was meant to discover what leads to better work and lives, Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile, and psychologist Steven Kramer, sorted through 12,000 diary entries and 64,000 specific workday events collected from 238 workers across seven different companies.  

Their conclusion from this research was:

Of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important – by far – is simply making progress in meaningful work.

You know what else they discovered? They discovered that creating meaning is about the small wins generated day by day, as opposed to a grand purpose that suddenly falls in your lap.

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It’s never too late to be what you might have been.

– George Eliot

If there’s one thing I want you to get out of this article, it is this: Don’t focus on what you’ll get. Focus on who you are becoming along the way because what counts is the journey, not the destination.

Don’t focus on what you’ll get. Focus on who you are becoming along the way.

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Do it for the journey itself. You’ll be so much happier than being always motivated by the attainment of some extrinsic goal.

As Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist summarized it beautifully in the preface of his magnificent book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

"Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself."

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Daniel Cerescu

I'm Daniel Cerescu, and I'm the guy behind this blog. Even though most of the material on this website is free, I aim to make this free content better than anyone else’s paid stuff. My mission is to inspire and empower those who refuse to settle for anything less than an extraordinary life to live with passion, lead with purpose, and make their mark on the world.