Are You Trading High Performance for Happiness and Not Getting Either?


In a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, University of Pennsylvania Senior Fellow Annie McKee discussed the seeming paradox for many professionals: the ability to shape and mold careers however wished, and yet, an overabundance of unhappiness. That is, so many describe themselves as “disengaged, unfulfilled and miserable.”

If you have used words similar to these to describe your day-to-day, you’re not alone. According to the Conference Board, a New York-based non-profit research group, more than 50% of US workers are not satisfied with their jobs. When the Conference Board conducted its first survey three decades ago that figure was 10% lower.

How do we explain that we’ve come a full generation and somehow regressed? Ms. McKee explains that for many of us, it can at least be somewhat explained by “happiness traps” – destructive mindsets that keep us stuck, unhappy and less successful, the three most common being:

  1. Excessive ambition – the drive to achieve goals and do one’s best taken to an extreme, resulting in hypercompetitiveness

  2. Obligation to expectations – pathologically abiding to norms and expectations that deny our aspirations and stifle our dreams

  3. Overwork – obsessively prioritizing work demands over personal relationships, responsible nutrition, wellness and sleep

The key problem with each of these traps is that they are self-reinforcing and are rife for creating a vortex of underperformance. Take the trap of overwork as an example. Overextending ourselves commonly leads to less sleep, which can then lead to sickness, which in turn adds to the mountain of work, and the cycle continues. And, this is nothing to say to the quality of work when we are not at our best; often compromised in creativity, collaboration and effectiveness.


It is tempting to classify these traps as a simple result of bad habits that many of us fall into. And, conventional wisdom to address bad habits usually prescribes some combination of awareness, discipline and resolve. The problem with trying to manage these traps through New Year’s Resolution-style tactics is that we discount the underlying neuroscience responsible (and we resign ourselves to paltry success rates of New Year’s Resolutions).

In his most recent book, The Hacking of the American Mind, Dr. Robert Lustig explains that while the human brain is made of hundreds of areas that perform different functions, the emotional brain is largely composed of just three systems.

Virtually all human emotion is generated in three pathways: the reward pathway, the contentment pathway, and to a lesser extent, the stress-fear-memory pathway.

The reward pathway is designed to generate feelings of motivation that attend to reward and learning. Using the chemical dopamine, the learning pathway teaches us as to what behavior feels good by providing a chemical reward. This is not so different from how a master might give a pet dog a treat in when it performs a trick. The dog soon begins to associate the trick with fulfillment from the treat.

In humans, however, these “tricks” usually involve using (and sometimes abusing) a vice of choice, whether that vice is food, alcohol, shopping or Instagram. Eat a piece of chocolate, get a hit of dopamine; get a like on a tweet, get a microdose of dopamine. It’s no wonder that social media resembles so many other addictions. By all chemical comparisons, it’s no different.

And therein lies the problem with trying to resolve happiness traps as if they are bad habits: it completely ignores the fact that our own brain is continuously conditioning us to keep craving for “feel good” chemicals. We stay motivated through perpetually seeking pleasure as a reward. Hit your sales targets, fulfill your organizations expectations, crunch through a never-ending mountain of work, all for that next fix so we might feel good for just a moment longer. And, as with any drug, the effects diminish over time. It takes ever-increasing amounts dopamine to achieve the same feeling of bliss until the pathway is so damaged it doesn’t produce any.

When taken to an extreme, the diminishing effects of happiness traps cause burn out. Burn out is the result of an insatiable hunger to seek pleasure from the dopamine released when one is validated, affirmed and/or recognized for performing a service, usually for others. Over time, there simply becomes no number of goals to achieve, expectations to fulfill, or amount of work to complete that will produce that feelings desired.

Chasing the dragon, indeed.

Lucky for us, there is another system in the emotional brain that is just as powerful and sophisticated in as the reward pathway. The contentment pathway is designed to help us distinguish impulses as “good” or “bad”. And, just like the reward pathway, the contentment pathway utilizes its own chemical: serotonin.

In contrast to the reward pathway that is ever-hungry, the contentment pathway’s function is to serve as the appetite suppressant. It’s the equivalent of being satiated at Thanksgiving dinner, backing away from the table and saying, “I’m good. I’ve had enough.”

And this is the core the problem: somewhere along the line, we’ve conflated pleasure with happiness. We’ve made strange bedfellows of short-lived delight with long-lasting satisfaction. We’ve ignored the distinction between heightened emotional excitement and soothing comfortable satisfaction. Two separate pathways with two separate chemicals, each impacting the emotional brain their unique way.


By understanding that there are two distinct systems at work, we can be more intentional about both high performance and long-term happiness, both as managers of teams and for ourselves. At Dowling Street, we often work with clients to achieve long term sustainability and growth. From our experience, this goal requires distinct strategies to address high performance and long-term engagement (i.e. happy teams are engaged teams).

First introduced by Daniel Pink in his 2009 book, Drive, we routinely find the following to be the three key drivers of motivation, and thus, high performance:

  1. Autonomy – the desire to have freedom or self-determination

  2. Mastery – the desire to grow, develop and learn

  3. Purpose – the desire for our work to be meaningful or have some consequence

Each of these drivers affects motivation because each connects in some way to the reward pathway in the brain. For example, the driver of mastery motivates us because growing and developing often results in recognition and/or being regarded as an expert. Both of these can be pleasurable outcomes, generated by the release of (you guessed it), dopamine. Similarly, purpose motivates us because it makes us feel significant, something that can seem fleeting as we zoom out to our surrounding communities, countries and regions. I was once told that two things people will almost always make time for is talking about themselves and being asked for advice. Mastery and purpose peeking out from behind the curtain.

These are the levers to motivate yourself or your team. Work on (or assign) something that is self-directed, sprinkle in some learning and growth, and connect it to a personal cause or mission. Odds are, there won’t be enough hours in the day.

For long-term happiness, though, the levers above are insufficient. Whereas motivation drivers (the reward pathway) are inward facing and solitary, long-term satisfaction is largely outward facing and connected to others. We’ve found the following three drivers appeal to the contentment pathway:

  1. Mission – connect our work to an aspiration that contributes

  2. Community – build meaningful connections to those around us

  3. Balance – incorporate nourishing habits: eat, sleep, move & breathe

Creating an aspirational personal mission that contributes in some way serves to produce long-term engagement and drives overall contentment. The contribution aspect is key; our happiness is largely driven by our ability to impact others’ in a meaningful way. Understanding this, at Dowling Street, every team member is charged with doing a “heart project” each year; a project, typically pro-bono or low-bono, that serves a personal mission or cause. This isn’t just philanthropy, we know it’s good business because it serves as a retention strategy.

Similarly, developing meaningful connections to those around us and working towards common goals drive happiness by shifting perspective from inward (reward) to outward (contentment). As humans, we are social animals, requiring interaction, connection and belonging. In contrast, prolonged isolation can lead to depression, loss of appetite and difficulty with thinking, concentration and memory.

Finally, probably not surprising, incorporating a regiment of balanced physical nourishment is essential. Consistently getting eight hours of sleep, being conscious about processed foods, incorporating meditation, and finding a way to move (exercise) have all shown to improve cognitive function and overall well-being.


Sustainable performance from top players requires the prospect of both immediate delight and long-lasting satisfaction. For far too long, these two distinct aspects have been improperly confused. In thinking about your own routines, how are you balancing your own high-performance, motivating habits with those that will lead to long-term contentment? And, are you being intentional in doing the same for your team, department or organization?