Information overload is the new normal.

Our brains are pummelled with multiple messages, driving mixed agendas as we are exposed to more information in one day than previous generations received in a week or even a month.  With so much data coming in, it is more important than ever to be clear and connected to what we want from life; to understand our Success Agenda.

Too often our agenda for success is narrow, limiting, uninspiring and soulless. Our picture of success is defined by others – friends, family, work, trends on social media – and has no real connection to what is meaningful or motivating to us personally. Without personalised meaning, success can feel empty, pointless and de-motivating, which leads to a self-fulfilling cycle of under-performance. Evidence shows that lack of achievement can impact physical and mental health, social and relationship outcomes, and feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. Not surprisingly, satisfaction with life goes down.

Who is setting your success agenda? What does a successful life look like for you?

“Until you make the unconscious conscious,
it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

― C.G. Jung.

The Neuroscience and Psychology of Success
‘Minimise danger, maximise reward’ is the organising principle of the brain and because of this success triggers powerful neurological and psychological responses in us.

When we perceive we have achieved ‘success’, the reward system in our brain is triggered, increasing testosterone levels in both men and women, and sparking the brain’s ‘pleasure messenger’, dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in our brains that underpins the pleasurable feelings of enjoying delicious food, winning a bet, getting a pay rise, having sex – or experiencing success.

Dopamine makes us feel great – alert, energised and motivated – but success also acts like a tranquilliser because dopamine ‘flushes out’ cortisol – the stress-hormone – from the brain and may also have mild anti-depressant qualities. What’s not to love?

The psychological effects of success are also powerful – boosting feelings of self-confidence and control, both of which drive levels of overall wellbeing and ultimately our ability to feel well and do well.

So what happens when we feel we haven’t met the standard? When we perceive that we haven’t achieved ‘success’?Whilst dopamine drives the reward response, cortisol takes over when we feel threatened. Cortisol and adrenaline fuel our fight or flight response and trigger several physiological responses that are helpful in life or death situations but reduce our capacity to see, hear and process complex or peripheral information in times of threat and fear.

Psychologically, we can feel that our ego is at risk, through internal dialogue like, ‘If I didn’t succeed at that, then maybe I’m not the person I thought I was.”  This can be particularly potent when the ego is threatened by the ‘social-evaluative threat’ – a negative judgement by others. According to Sally Dickerson and colleagues of the University of California at Irvine, this is one of the most stressful situations that we experience – more stressful than financial insecurity, work strains and pressures, health concerns, worries about children, time demands, or fear of burglary attack.

Shame and fear of not being good enough sit at the heart of this threat and there are evolutionary reasons why it has such a significant impact, relating to social status in ‘tribes’ and the very real survival need to be part of a pack.

The obsession with wealth, status and success is all around us – from standardised testing in schools and narrow KPIs in workplaces to the relentless posts on social media (with appropriate filters and photo-shopping of course!).

So, who is driving your Success Agenda? Are you in the driving seat?

The first step is awareness – I invite you to take it.


  Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams