The Secret Great Leaders Know About Being Happy

Most gurus will tell you that the secret to happiness is cultivating a sense of gratitude. But gratitude alone is not enough.

I walked into the kitchen as the sun was rising above the water. My friend–let’s call him Ray–was sitting at an oversized harvest table sipping a coffee made from a machine that costs more than a small car.

The kitchen was complete with every trinket befitting a cashed-out entrepreneur. It was one of probably 20 rooms in a 7,000-square-foot mansion perched above 150 feet of waterfront. I had been invited to stay at Ray’s family home for a few days while passing through on vacation.

Gobsmacked by the setting, and without thinking very much, I asked Ray, “Do you still appreciate this view every morning?”

“Every single morning,” he said.

“Really?” I probed, thinking that even an amazing view like the one I was witnessing would become old after a while.

“Yes, really. It may sound corny, but the overwhelming feeling I get when I look out over the water in the morning is gratitude. I feel so lucky to have two healthy kids and a great wife, and to live in this house.”

Grateful vs. Proud

Ray’s use of the word “grateful” struck me as a noteworthy response from a successful entrepreneur for whom luck played very little part in his success. To me, saying you are “grateful” for something implies that you have been, at least in part, the recipient of good fortune.

For example, I’m “grateful” that it’s sunny outside as I write this column; I’m “grateful” to live in a country where we enjoy a relatively high standard of living; I feel “grateful” to have had loving and supportive parents. But these are not things I had any control over or for which I can take credit.

Yet here was Ray, a successful guy saying he was “grateful” for what he has. Ray could have chosen to use the word “proud” or “happy,” which would have implied he felt a sense of satisfaction for achieving his goals. But he didn’t.

Ray did well in school, earned a Stanford MBA, joined a technology company, then started his own business, which was acquired for millions by a public company. I’m sure some of Ray’s old high school friends would say he has been “lucky.”

But for Ray, luck had little to do with it. It wasn’t luck that got him the grades to get into Stanford; it wasn’t luck that he started a successful business; and it wasn’t by chance that Ray’s company was acquired.

The Happiness Paradox: Gratitude and Self-determination

And therein lies one of the paradoxes I’ve come across when studying winning entrepreneurs: The most successful ones leave nothing to chance and at the same time live with a sense of gratitude for how lucky they have been.

Do you see the inherent paradox in that statement? The most successful people feel gratitude for the luck they have received, yet never lose the sense of self-determination required for an entrepreneur to persevere in his or her darkest hour.

You probably know lots of people who think “fate” determines their life. They are the same individuals who feel “lucky” when something good happens and “unlucky”–or victimized–when something bad happens. They buy lottery tickets, quit easily, and they look enviously at people who achieve things. They are probably your least successful friends.

Pride Without Gratitude Is a Recipe for Misery

But self-determination on its own is not enough to make you truly happy either. You probably know people who believe work, not fate, controls their destiny. They believe they have earned their big house on the hill and deserve what they have acquired, and it is hard to feel grateful for something you think you deserve in the first place.

The happiest people I know are able to live in a paradox: They leave nothing to chance but they feel truly grateful for what they have accomplished.

LAST UPDATED: SEP 9, 2014

JOHN WARRILLOW | Columnist | Sellability

John Warrillow’s new book, The Automatic Customer: Creating a Subscription Business In Any Industry will be released on February 5, 2015. John is also the author of Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You and the founder of The Sellability Score, a company dedicated to helping business owners improve the value of their company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com
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Frank Mancieri, Chief Growth Advisor

Frank Mancieri helps business owners increase their company value by focusing on business value drivers, helping to increase profits, better manage and increase cash flow, mitigate risk, and when appropriate, plan for their future exit. Frank is Chief Growth Advisor with GT Growth & Transition Strategies, LLC. He uses his 20+ years in private business, his 14+ years as a business advisor, and his knowledge and experience to help business owners use their companies to achieve their personal goals. He has received advance training as a Certified Business Exit Consultant®, holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and an MBA, both from Bryant University, and he is an adjunct professor at Rhode Island College.