If you are happy and you know it

There is a certain perversity in the idea that one can be too happy. There is so much in life that causes one stress and discomfort, that to complain of being too happy seems rather out of touch with the greater travails experienced across the world.

However, happiness is no different to any other emotion and as we have explored in earlier articles, a failure to control one’s feelings – be they positive or negative – can be destructive.

What really makes you happy?

When I ask people what has made them happiest in their lives, the answer is invariably the birth of a child, or when they met their partners or got married. It is only right that humans experience unrivalled happiness during such monumental events.

However, when I ask people when they achieved true happiness alone, the answer is often as a result of success at work for which they were recognised and rewarded.

Happiness comes when the brain sends dopamine – a neurotransmitter – to the body. Dopamine is imperative for one’s mental and physical wellbeing and it also informs the body’s motor system. 

Humans produce dopamine during physical exercise, eating, having sex, listening to music and – as with the earlier example – from being rewarded for positive behaviour or hard work.

It may seem counterintuitive to believe that one can be too happy, failure to manage happiness is no laughing matter and the emotion can be destructive if not controlled effectively.

At its least destructive a deluge of pleasure can leave one feeling less creative. If one is entirely content what is there to strive for? A CEO must leave one’s comfort zone is if they are to push a business forward successfully.

However, at its most serious, too much happiness can be life destroying.

Too much of a good thing

When the brain releases dopamine it allows one not just to see rewards but to move towards them. The chemical is then critical to feeling pleasure and to receiving a reward.

Consequently, it is no surprise that dopamine – and the pursuit of the feelings it gives– can lead to bad decision-making, poor judgement and addiction. One only needs look at the types of activity that stimulate dopamine – eating, sex, exercise and drugs – to see why this is the case.

Not all drugs act in the same way but all of them have some relation to the brain’s dopamine production. For example, heroin mimics one’s natural pleasure chemicals, while cocaine prevents dopamine being reabsorbed by the brain, extending artificially one’s happiness.

Once that feeling starts to wear off, users will chase the high, taking more and more cocaine to extend the euphoria.

The same is true of eating. A chocoholic indulging in their favourite sweet will feel the enjoyable from dopamine being released into the body. When the chocolate is finished, the brain will want the body to find more, to replicate the earlier feelings of bliss. The addict may not care that eating more may cause weight gain or illness. All that matters is the feeling of instant reward.

Of course, the obvious repercussions of this type of addictive behaviour is clear. People may give up their health, relationships, careers and even their homes to continue to recreate initial feelings of happiness.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The highs created in business are no less addictive than those from drugs, gambling, sex or eating. The successful CEO who has just closed an important deal will undoubtedly be on a high. Their hard work has been rewarded, there will be financial and social recognition. They will be anxious to recreate this success, perhaps replicating steps that proved effective last time but, on this occasion, may be inappropriate. They may take bigger risks to secure a new client, or to make a splash in a new market, blinded by their success and desperate to reexperience the feelings of euphoria.

Rogue trader and convicted felon Jordan Belfort made a career out of chasing his own pleasure. Founder of a stockbroking company that went on to defraud $200m of dollars of investors’ money, Belfort had his drug and crime fuelled career brought to life in the 2007 Martin Scorsese film Wolf of Wall Street.  The Oscar winning movie showed in all its shocking detail just how far Belfort would go to ensure he could enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle to the full.

Belfort was willing to do almost anything to be the ‘ultimate Wall Street rich guy with the Presidential hotel suite, the Ferrari, the house on the beach, the gorgeous blonde, the expensive wine, the art auctions, the yacht…”

He was also avoracious user of drugs which ultimately saw him sink his 167ft motor yacht, complete with seaplane and helicopter, in the Mediterranean while sailing in a storm completely out of his head of cocaine. Belfort ended up broke and incarcerated. He pays $8000 dollars a week to the US government in recompense for his earlier fraud and has abandoned the wild excesses that were driven by drugs and unchecked emotions. 

Keep it in check

Happiness is imperative to survival; without positive, motivating emotions humans will wither on the vine. However, the brain is hardwired to seek pleasure and in some cases it is willing to go to extreme lengths to get it. CEOs need to learn to keep their happiness in check and ensure that they can put a lid on excess. As we explored in earlier articles, one needs to learn to listen to the message from the brain, understand what it is saying and then process it appropriately.

While one should always embrace enthusiasm and excitement, CEOs need to make decisions dispassionately. Happiness is one of the best feelings one can have, but for that very reason it can never be left unchecked.


Humans need to manage positive emotions in the same way they deal with negative ones. As with every other emotion, happiness is just a message from the brain giving one important information. How one interprets that message and the subsequent response are critical to making the right decisions both personally and professionally. Happiness can cloud one’s judgement and drive negative behaviours if it is left unmanaged. A good CEO will enjoy positive feelings, use them to motivate the next constructive course of action, but never allow euphoria to replace common sense.

Get in touch to find out more about managing emotions in business.

sign up to our newsletter