Achieving More Won't Make You Happier
“In our goal-oriented society, setting an objective to work toward is often a powerful motivator that drives professional and personal progress."
Do these sound like promises you’ve made to yourself?
Once I get the promotion, I’ll feel like my career is on track.
After this busy period, I won’t have to work so much and can spend time doing things I enjoy.
When I make six-figures, I’ll be financially secure enough to move across the country/start a family/write a book.
In our goal-oriented society, setting an objective to work toward is often a powerful motivator that drives professional and personal progress.
In theory this may not sound like a bad thing, but what if when you achieve that goal, life doesn’t really look or feel any different? For example, have you ever completed one project only to realize that there’s now even more to do, meaning you’re further from the work-life balance you so desperately crave? Others may relate to the confusing feeling of finally getting or a raise or promotion, only to remain haunted by anxiety and a sneaking sense of disillusionment. I know I can.
This disconcerting let down has name. Commonly known as the arrival fallacy, it’s a psychological thought trap high-achievers are all too familiar with.
Here’s how the arrival fallacy works along with what you can do to counteract it and reach new heights of success.
The Arrival Fallacy: What It Is And How it Works
The arrival fallacy–a term introduced by positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier–operates on the idea that in the process of working toward a goal, you come to expect that you will in fact reach it.
Anchoring on a future goal triggers reward centers in the brain, inducing a cognitively soothing effect. That feeling of accomplishment becomes part of your day-to-day identity. You readily adjust to this new state of being so much so that actually attaining a goal turns out to be less satisfying than expected.
While dedication to continuous personal improvement is admirable, it’s a slippery slope. When we get too caught up in future outcomes, we may attach to an unattainable illusion of perfection. We seek goal after goal, hoping something will make us happy, which reinforces a cycle of self-doubt and not feeling “good enough”.
Instead, it can develop into a cycle of searching for external things — accomplishments or material objects — to fulfill and complete us. There’s always new goals to take the place of those that have already been fulfilled. We go for bigger clients, seek larger raises or want to lose 15 pounds instead of five. We keep upping the ante.
Moreover, oftentimes once we reach the place where we thought we’d be happy, there’s new challenges and responsibilities to face. Getting a promotion may mean working longer hours, launching a side hustle involves constantly seeking new business and losing weight may incite jealousy among co-workers or mean fewer happy hours and fancy lunches, straining your networking strategy.
Steps To Overcoming The Most Common Goal-Setting Mistake
What the arrival fallacy teaches us is that although you may fill your life with evermore ambitious goals and projects, sometimes reaching these heights does not necessarily deliver happiness. Yes, as cliché as it sounds, it’s the journey not the destination that teaches lessons, reveals simple pleasures, brings new people into our lives and instills in us a genuine, internal sense of contentment.
All this isn’t to say that setting goals or shooting for success in a particular area of your career is a recipe for unhappiness or failure, rather it’s how you allow that goal to dictate your daily mood that can bring you down.
Striving for self-improvement is essential. Here’s how to do it in a healthy way that accelerates success.
1. Rediscover Your Mission
It can be easy to become so unshakably transfixed on achieving professional objectives such as banking a certain salary or earning a prestigious job title that your original purpose is forgotten. Mired in busywork and the daily ins and outs of your duties, you may lose sight of the bigger “why”that drives you. Without a sense of purpose, you climb the ladder success with profound emptiness.
When this happens, dedicate intentional time to re-orient back to your mission. Take a day or two to refocus. You don’t have to travel anywhere. You can simulate a professional mini-retreat by asking yourself big questions like “What would I be doing if money wasn’t a problem?” or “When do I feel most alive?”
Through this internal exploration you may come to realize is what you covet more than a promotion or raise is the opportunity to make a meaningful impact, lead a team or simply feel more validated and appreciated at work.
2. Value The Process Over The End Result
In study after study, social scientists like Daniel Pink have found that external rewards and traditional financial incentives don’t improve employee performance. They may actually backfire, making it difficult for people to come up with creative solutions.
Instead research shows high achievement is the result of intrinsic drivers–that is, a desire to do something for inherent interests, self-fulfillment or enjoyment. Motivation increases when people have the desire to perfect their craft. Successful people enjoy the learning process and don’t mind when it continues beyond an expected time frame. They relish in the journey to mastery. They focus on the happiness cultivated along the path to a particular goal, not necessarily a material outcome.
Try savoring how satisfying closing a huge sale feels, how deeply loved and seen you feel when family take note of your accomplishments or appreciate the increased recognition your company is receiving in the industry.
3. Commit To A System
Setting a big, hairy audacious goal–like publishing a book or launching a startup–can be a fantastic catalyst for change, but it’s not enough. You must commit to a process of taking action on a consistent basis.
Start with the question, “What could I do daily that would guarantee a result and move me forward?” to design your habit system. If you’re an aspiring author, create a weekly writing schedule. If you’re an entrepreneur, devise standard operating procedures to streamline your efforts. Whatever it is, it has to be an action you can sustain over time.
4. Recognize That Success Is Fluid
Understand that metrics of success — whether related to career, fitness, love or whatever else — are fluid and dynamic. There is always a higher rung in the ladder and over time your targets change. The ideal career when you’re in your 20s may be a poor work-life fit by the time you turn 35.
Instead of prescribing to career milestones society dictates you should have reached by a certain age or salary bracket, keep your options open, define success on your own terms and embrace the many opportunities you encounter on along the way.
Rather than work to attain a “cure-all” end goal, it’s important to view life as a succession of practices that build an imperfect yet wonderful big picture. Greatness comes from years grit, effort and many stumbles along the way.
About The Author
Melody is a performance coach for sensitive high achievers. Human Behavior professor.