Does Career Success Make You Happy? The Mediating Role of Multiple Subjective Success Evaluations

Abstract

We hypothesize that career success assessed as objective career achievements (income and responsibility status) has an indirect positive association with life satisfaction that is channeled through multiple subjective success evaluations. These are based on (a) social comparisons (comparison with others, other-referent success evaluation) and (b) individual standards (satisfaction with career achievements, self-referent success evaluations). We tested our reasoning in a 2-year prospective study with N = 990 professionals. Controlling for gender, family status, and workload, the results of two mediation models that draw on all information from two measurement points supported our reasoning. We found indirect positive associations between career success and life satisfaction (H1) channeled through both other-referent (H2) and self-referent (H3) subjective success evaluation. In both mediation models, we found partial mediation, and the remaining direct path from career success to life satisfaction was negative. We conclude that career success has mixed effects on a person’s life satisfaction: The net effect of positive indirect and negative direct effects is positive, but not large. We discuss the significance of these findings for theorizing about the influence of the work domain on life satisfaction as well as for conceptual issues in the analysis of mediators and moderators of the career success life satisfaction association.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    The finding that women have slightly higher ratings of other-referent success evaluations than men although women were objectively less successful than men probably reflects shifting standards (Biernat et al. 1991): When women compare their own success with the one of other women, they possibly apply lower standards than men, who compare their own success with the one of other men. This, in turn, results in higher other-referent success evaluations of women.

  2. 2.

    The partner findings are probably due to the fact that men (T1: 87.5 %; T2: 88.0 %)—who had higher career success than women—lived slightly more often with a partner than women. (T1: 85.08 %; T2: 84.89 %), T1, χ2(1, 990) = 1.13, ps > .16, T2, χ2(1, 990) = 1.97, ps = .16.

  3. 3.

    The finding regarding parenthood is probably due to the fact that men (T1: 61.9 %, T2: 69.1 %) were more often parents than women (T1: 49.4 %; T2: 55.6 %), χ2(1, 990) > 14.26, ps < .001.

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Acknowledgments

The present research was supported by a grant from the German Research Council to the first author (AB 45/8-1/2/4/6). We thank Juliane Bräutigam and Stefanie Wening for their help in data collection.

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Correspondence to Andrea E. Abele.

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Abele, A.E., Hagmaier, T. & Spurk, D. Does Career Success Make You Happy? The Mediating Role of Multiple Subjective Success Evaluations. J Happiness Stud 17, 1615–1633 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-015-9662-4

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Keywords

  • Career success
  • Success evaluation
  • Social comparison
  • Career satisfaction
  • Life satisfaction