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Professional Success or Personal Sacrifice What Would You Do If You Had to Choose?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 1, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
The supermarket tabloids featured Sandra Bullock this week, as did many mainstream media outlets. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress and was publicly tormented by disclosures about her philandering husband.

New York Times columnist David Brooks raises a philosophical issue"Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?" No evidence suggests Ms. Bullock traded her marriage for the award, but the question still resonates. Which matters most-worldly success or personal relationships?

"If you had to take more than three seconds to think about this question, you are absolutely crazy," writes Brooks, decisively favoring relationships. He alludes to research by Canadian scientists showing Oscar winners can be expected to outlive their non-winning colleagues by four to six years. But he goes on to say teams of researchers have consistently found that good personal relationships bring greater happiness than monetary or professional success, and that harmonious and trusting relationships in societies are related to better overall health and economic growth. Brooks says being married "produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year, " and research does show that married people live longer than unmarried people. Research by Nicholas Christakos and James Fowles, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, has documented the vital importance of connections and relationships to the quality of our lives. They've even shown that happiness is contagious.

Still, the outpouring of responses to Brooks's column, including a Wall Street Journal blog, letters to the editor and hundreds of answers on line, show this complex issue touches a nerve. Readers observed that hard driving executives and entrepreneurs who sacrificed personal lives for careers have created institutions and inventions that benefit the rest of us; that both love and work are crucial; and that happiness is a mysterious condition that some find in spirituality and others find in wealth. One writer wondered whether Brooks pondered the either/or question when Sean Penn won an Oscar as his 20 year relationship with Robin Wright was dissolving.

Some readers can't buy a downgraded importance for money. "Trust me, David," wrote one, the guys who made billions selling the worthless mortgage backed securities that wrecked the economy are happier than the working stiffs who lost their pensions, jobs, and homes. Another observed that money is the source of many a marital fight.

While the relationship between happiness and income is complicated and ambiguous, as Brooks notes, studies do show interesting, creative work makes people happy, that autonomy matters, and that conscientiousness and career success are linked to longevity.
Brooks says government should pay attention to trust and well-being, not just material growth. To which one readers replied, "By all accounts Hamlet wasn't hurting financially, and look what happened to him." Money won't buy happiness, but she worries about turning that idea into public policy: "Depending on your perspective, you could use it to regulate banks and the salaries of CEO's or work to get rid of the minimum wage. " If governments created fair, stable societies, she wrote, all citizens would have a chance to pursue happiness.

Brooks glosses over America's growing economic inequality by asserting it "doesn't seem to have reduced national happiness." If columnists didn't gloss over things, they'd never finish their columns. However, centuries of history display traumatic upheavals rooted in economic and social inequality. And many studies have explored the sense fairness that seems to drive both people and animals. It's not insignificant that a monkey can get pretty steamed when a peer gets grapes for a task that only got him a slice of cucumber.

Would that this challenge were both/and, not either/or. But not all life situations are in our control, so the question remains: If you had to choose, would you take professional and financial success or happy well-tended personal relationships?

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