Is Success Making You Depressed?

UPDATED: October 8, 2015
PUBLISHED: April 17, 2015

Can personal and professional success make you depressed? It actually can, depending on how you define it.

As a clinical psychologist, I specialize in helping entrepreneurs get out of their own way so they can have the success they want. A lot of clients come in to see me with definitions of the word that, frankly, aren’t working for them. The result? Perpetual disappointment, strained relationships, burnout, businesses that are not as profitable as they want, overwhelming stress and even depression.

What about you? Are your definitions of success causing you more pain and less prosperity? Here are five common ways people define success—definitions that, in reality, could be leading to significant distress:

1. Success means making more and more money.

People often think, If I had millions of dollars, life would be great. That would be true success. In reality, when your primary motivator is money, you lose focus on what’s truly important to you. And having a sense of meaning and purpose is critical to your psychological well-being. There is a type of depression called existential depression that is caused by a lack of true passion and meaning in your life—focusing on money over meaning is a great way to feel empty and down.

2. Success means having a certain title.

So often, I see people getting on what I call the Self-Worth Treadmill. They think, When I get to a director level, then I’ll be successful. Then once they achieve that title, they search for the next way to determine their self-worth: When I become an executive, then I will be successful. And if it’s not a title, it could be some other arbitrary criteria.

Like being on a treadmill, you feel the need to keep going for the next step, never feeling fully satisfied for what you have accomplished. Once you achieve one goal, you are looking for the next thing. By continuing to define your success—and worth—by superficial external measures, you will fail to feel fully satisfied. And that can cause a plummet in your mood.

3. Success means that I put certain things on hold (like my relationships or my own health) in order to achieve it.

If I had a dollar for every client who told me, “I will take care of that (relationships, health, stress) when things calm down,” I would be a rich woman.

People often put their heart and soul into their work. In this day and age when the lines of professional and personal time are so blurred, I often find clients working excessive hours. They justify it saying that achieving success requires that they focus on their business. The result? Social isolation, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation and poor eating habits, all of which can contribute to depression.

The real secret to success is to include time for yourself and your relationships. World-class athletes know the importance of intense training and intense rest. Apply that in your life—and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t have an hour to work out? Drop the all-or-nothing perfectionistic thinking. A walk around the block is better than perfect.

4. Success means not making a mistake.

The fear of failure can be paralyzing for many. It can lead to working for hours on one small, insignificant detail. For others, it can cause procrastination and avoidance. In order to be successful, many believe, my work must be perfect. So they hold off on publishing that book, releasing a new product or giving a speech until it’s perfect.

The result? Lack of productivity, as well as depression. In fact, perfectionism, which entails a view that your work (and you) are either perfect or a failure, is a strong predictor of depression. In reality, success is often fueled by “failures” if you use them as learning opportunities.

5. Success means being entitled to special privileges, experiences and services.

Entitlement, or thinking you deserve something just because of who you are, is a surefire way to feel miserable. Think of the celebrity divas (male and female) who are in the news for yelling at a flight attendant for doing their job or throwing a tantrum for not getting their way. Entitlement is, ironically, caused by low self-worth. Those who feel entitled get upset when they don’t receive the treatment they think they should; it is a huge blow to their ego. And such a fragile ego is a prime ingredient for depression.

Instead of viewing the world as here to serve you, concentrate on how you are here to serve the world in whatever way feels right to you. This will boost your happiness and your success.

Success is based not only on your profits but also on your purpose—applying your values and strengths, focusing on what is important to you. So, how do you define success?

See what personal development expert Zig Ziglar says success is—and what it isn’t.

Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., is a wealth psychologist helping entrepreneurs get out of their own way so they can have the successful businesses they want. Her newest book Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love is now available. How can you crush your inner critic? Learn more at