‘Is This It?’ When Success Isn’t Satisfying
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‘Is This It?’ When Success Isn’t Satisfying

Here’s how to truly savour the high of hitting a career goal

Wed, Mar 15, 2023 8:00amGrey Clock 4 min

You got the job, won the award, launched the new project to accolades. So why don’t you feel better?

“You get the title and it’s, like, ‘Ugh. Is this it?’” says Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who leads a longitudinal study, started in 1938, on how people thrive.

Sometimes, getting the thing is just as delicious as we imagine. Other times, we climb and climb, only to be underwhelmed by what we find at the top: more work, political wrangling, the feeling of being a fraud. Or the success high wears off fast, replaced by that old panic we hoped the accomplishment would finally cure. Then we wonder: Where’s the next win?

We’re all sprinting on what psychologists call a hedonic treadmill. That is, we might get a hit of joy when we achieve something, but we eventually return to our baseline level of happiness (or unhappiness). Whatever heights we reach, we’re still, well, us.

“From the outside, people think, ‘Oh, my God, amazing,’” says Andy Dunn, who helped sell clothing retailer Bonobos to Walmart Inc. in a $310 million deal after 10 years as chief executive and co-founder.

Mr. Dunn, now 44 and based in Chicago, spent years strategising and fantasising about such a sale but says it was a mirage. Building the company brought him more happiness, he says, than the eventual payout. (The Walmart deal paid him tens of millions of dollars.) Now working on a new startup, he’s keeping his team small and not chasing big checks from investors.

“I learned that those are just illusory things,” Mr. Dunn says.

The pursuit of happiness

Plenty of us would be happy to try our luck with fame and fortune, complications be damned. And it’s hard not to crave stuff and status when so much in our culture—from Super Bowl ads to friends’ Instagram feeds—insists that’s where fulfilment lies.

Success itself isn’t inherently bad, notes Dr. Waldinger, who adds: “Just don’t expect it to make you happy.”

Studying the antecedents of happiness among hundreds of participants in the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Dr. Waldinger found people acclimate to the trappings of achievement—including plump paychecks—swiftly.

“The corner office just becomes the place you go and do your work after a while,” he says. “The shine wears off.”

Lasting happiness results from wins that foster deep relationships and are imbued with meaning—some bigger payoff beyond your salary. Think work that affects clients’ lives or bonds your team together. When asked to share what they were most proud of, many of the octogenarians in the Harvard study talked about being a good leader or a helpful mentor, Dr. Waldinger says.

The power of authenticity

Many find they need to be able to succeed as themselves, rather than moulding their personas to fit the goal, to enjoy it.

Steve Babcock moved to New York City from Colorado in 2016 for a top creative job at an ad agency. He went from managing 50 people at his old job to overseeing 200. Industry publications profiled him. Every compliment on his LinkedIn posts was a dopamine hit. But on his train rides home from work, he felt empty. Numb.

“I have to give up who I really am to be this thing,” he says he realised. He preferred to be funny and casual at the office, but suddenly he was the boss. Subordinates often didn’t speak candidly as they tried to impress him, leaving Mr. Babcock feeling disconnected. He was also pulled farther from the creative work that he loved.

“I was always so driven to be seen as important,” he says. “There was just this cost to that.”

Mr. Babcock left the job, moved back to Colorado and now works at a food-technology company doing creative work. He sometimes misses the money—he now earns about what he did a decade ago—and the high-profile projects. He says he’s recently turned down three offers to be a chief creative officer again, unwilling to put the mask back on.

The impostor trap

Sometimes a coveted step up comes with burnout. Sabrina Hua spent three years working toward a promotion, and two years pursuing a master’s degree. She achieved both over a few months in 2021, and felt more miserable than triumphant.

The new job, in a university fundraising office, came with long hours and high-pressure goals. The degree felt like a huge accomplishment until she started to wonder if she needed a PhD.

“I just felt so much anxiety about what’s next,” the 29-year-old says.

Last fall, she quit. She’s spent the months since living off savings, traveling and focusing on small joys. Learning to crochet brought more happiness than completing her graduate program, Ms. Hua says. She plans to start searching for a new job soon, with new priorities.

“I don’t want to be obsessed with titles,” she says. “I want to have time.”

You don’t always have to pull a Peggy Olson, jumping ship from your old gig as she did in AMC’s drama “Mad Men,” to change your mind-set. Ruth Gotian, an executive coach and author of a book about reaching the apex of success, says that professionals often fear they’ll be seen as a fake at the exact moment they’re killing it. Winning a big client or publishing a definitive paper, they brush off compliments and worry that the prize will be taken away.

“Just because it’s unfamiliar doesn’t mean that you’re a fraud,” she says. Try to reframe the discomfort as positive, a cue that you’ve entered a new stage in your career. Collect thank-you notes and records of your wins along the way, so you can pull them out when you’re feeling shaky.

“There is a whole trail, a whole history of things that led to this point,” Dr. Gotian says.


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Booming demand for wellness tourism shows no slowing, with travel related to health and well-being projected to have reached $1 trillion last year and to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami.

Curated wellness travel programs are especially sought-after, specifically holistic treatments focused on longevity. Affluent travellers not only are making time to hit the gym while gallivanting across the globe, they’re also seeking destinations that specifically cater to their wellness goals, including treatments aimed at living longer.

“I believe Covid did put a spotlight on self-care and well-being,” says Penny Kriel, corporate director of spa and wellness at Salamander Collection, a group of luxury properties in places like Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. But Kriel says today’s spas are more holistic, encouraging folks to understand the wellness concept and incorporate it into their lifestyle more frequently.

“With the evolution of treatment products and technology, spas have been able to enhance their offerings and appeal to more travellers,” Kriel says.

While some growth is connected to the variety of treatments available, results and the digital world are also contributing to the wellness boom.

“The efficacy and benefits of these treatments continue to drive bookings and interest, especially with the support of social media, influencers, and celebrity endorsements,” Kriel says.

While genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, a diet free of processed foods, sufficient sleep, and human connection play essential roles in living well and longer, experts believe in holistic therapies to help manage stress, boost immunity, and ultimately influence length and quality of life.

Anti Ageing and Beyond

“For years, people have been coming to spas, booking treatments, and gaining advice on how to turn the clock back with anti ageing and corrective skin treatments,” Kriel says. However, today’s treatments are far more innovative.

On Marinella Beach in Porto Rotondo, on the Italian island of Sardinia, guests at the five-star Abi d’Oru Hotel & Spa can experience the resort’s one-of-a-kind “longevity treatment,” a unique antiaging facial using one of the island’s native grapes: Cannonau. The world’s first declared “Blue Zone”—one of five designated areas where people live longer than average, some into their 100s—Sardinia produces this robust red wine varietal, the most widely planted on the island.

Known as Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France, Cannonau supposedly contains two to three times more antioxidants than other red-wine grapes. By incorporating Cannonau, Abi Spa says its unique 50-minute longevity session increases collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.

Maintaining a youthful appearance is just one facet of longevity treatments, which range from stress-reduction sessions like massage to nutritional support and sleep programs, Kriel says. Some retreats also offer medical services such as IV infusions and joint injections.

Keeping with the trend, Kriel is expanding Salamander Collection’s existing spa services, such as detox wraps and lymphatic drainage, to include dedicated “Wellness Rooms,” new vegan and vegetarian menu items, and well-being workshops. “Sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness will be a big focus for integration in 2024,” she says.

Data-Driven Wellness

Skyler Stillings, an exercise physiologist at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort—an adults-only wellness centre in Lanai, Hawaii—says guests were drawn to the social aspect when the spa opened in November 2021.

“We saw a huge need for human connection,” she recalls. But over the past few years, what’s paramount has shifted. “Longevity is trending much more right now.”

Human connection is a central draw for guests at Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Billionaire co-founder of tech company Oracle Larry Ellison and physician and scientist Dr. David Angus co-founded Sensei. After the death of a mutual close friend, the duo teamed up to create longevity-based wellness retreats to nurture preventative care and a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the Lanai location, the brand established Sensei Porcupine Creek in Greater Palm Springs, California, in November 2022.

Sensei has a data-driven approach. The team performs a series of assessments to obtain a clearer picture of a guest’s health, making wellness recommendations based on the findings. While Sensei analyses that data to curate a personalised plan, Stillings says it’s up to the guests which path they choose.

Sensei’s core three-day retreat is a “Guided Wellness Experience.” For spa treatments, each guest checks into their own “Spa Hale,” a private 1,000-square-foot bungalow furnished with an infrared sauna, a steam shower, a soaking tub, and plunge pools. The latest therapies include Sarga Bodywalking—a barefoot myofascial release massage, and “Four Hands in Harmony,” a massage with two therapists working in tandem. Sensei Guides provide take-home plans so guests can continue their wellness journeys after the spa.

Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Sanctuaries for Longevity

Headquartered in Switzerland with hotels and on-site spas across the globe, Aman Resorts features an integrative approach, combining traditional remedies with modern medicine’s advanced technologies. Tucked behind the doors of the storied Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan, Banya Spa House at Aman New York—the brand’s flagship spa in the Western Hemisphere—is a 25,000-square-foot, three-floor urban oasis.

Yuki Kiyono, global head of health and wellness development at Aman, says the centre provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. Aman’s customisable “Immersion Programs” consist of a three- or five-day immersion. “The programs encompass treatments and experiences that touch every significant aspect to create a path for longevity, from meditation and mindfulness to nutrition and movement,” Kiyono explains.

Banya Spa House at Aman New York.
Robert Rieger

The spa’s “Tei-An Wellness Solution” features 90- to 150-minute sessions using massage, cryotherapy, and Vitamin IV infusions. Acupuncture is also on offer.

“With its rich history of Chinese Medicine, modern research, and the introduction of sophisticated electro-acupuncture medicine, acupuncture has been proven to assist with problems and increase performance,” Kiyono says.

Resetting the Mind and Body

Beyond longevity, “healthspan”—the number of years a person can live in good health free of chronic disease—is the cornerstone of Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat’s program in British Columbia, Canada.

Kirk Shave, president and program director, and his team employ a holistic approach, using lifestyles in long-living Blue Zones as a point of reference.

“We improve our daily lifestyle habits, so we live vitally as long as we’re meant to live,” Shave says of the retreat. He built the program from an anthropological stance, referencing humans as farmers, hunters, and gatherers based on their eating and sleeping patterns. Food includes vegetable-centric meals sans alcohol, sugar, bread, or dairy.

Guests wake at dawn each day and have access to sunrise yoga, several hours of “flow” or slow hiking, spa treatments, forest bathing, calming crystal singing-bowl and sound therapy sessions, and classes on stress reduction—one of Mountain Trek’s primary goals. The program motivates people to spend much of their time in nature because it’s been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can lead to inflammation and disease when elevated for extended periods.

While most guests aren’t aware of how immersive Mountain Trek’s program is when they arrive, they leave the resort revitalized after the structured, one-week program. Set in the Kootenays overlooking its eponymous river, the resort and adventure promise what Shave calls a “visceral experience of transformation.”

“They’re interested in coming to be in nature,” Shave says of the guests. “They hit a wall in their life and slipped backwards, so they know they need a reset.”

Banya Spa House at Aman New York provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
Robert Rieger

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.


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