You’ve spent months dedicating yourself to a goal and you’ve finally achieved it. You’ve got that promotion, nailed that pitch or completed your sub-4 hour marathon. How do you feel? Great? We hope so. We are conditioned to believe that our happiness is based on achievements and when we reach a particular goal, all the pieces will fall into place. If you’ve ever found yourself saying something like “I’ll be happy when X happens” then you might know what we’re talking about.
But often that feeling of elation of reaching a goal wears off fast and we are left asking ourselves “what now?” All of that build up can leave us feeling deflated when we do eventually hit that goal. I can think of numerous times in my life where I've had this feeling. Finishing my law degree at 21 should have been a momentous occasion. I had been building to this moment for years and yet I had a distinct feeling of being underwhelmed. I didn’t feel any different, so was it all for nothing?
For a long time I believed that this meant I was doing something wrong and I had some guilt attached to these feelings. I felt like an ungrateful child, always wanting the next rush of reaching a goal and not appreciating the last thing I achieved. It turns out that I’m not alone, and that there is a term for this feeling: the arrival fallacy.
The Arrival Fallacy
Tal Ben-Shahar introduces the idea of the arrival fallacy in his book ‘Happier’. The arrival fallacy is the often false belief that we’ll be happy when a goal has been reached. As many of us know all too well, it isn’t always the case that reaching goals gives us the emotional response we expect. Let’s say we are unhappy in our current situation, it’s easy for us to fantasise about a future that’s filled with happiness. And that happiness will come with conditions such as getting married, being promoted or getting a raise. And while they can be great goals to have, the danger comes when we base our happiness only on reaching those things.
So why does the arrival fallacy happen?
We already expect the result
When we are working towards a big goal, it has already become the normal state of affairs for us that we will succeed in achieving our goal. Let’s say that you set yourself the target of running a marathon. You’ve perhaps spent 6 months training and already ran distances of over 20 miles. The success of running the marathon on race day becomes expected, so it can sometimes appear to be a letdown.
We reveal new challenges
Sometimes when we reach a goal, we expose new challenges which we didn’t expect. Our promotion we were so excited to achieve, has now resulted in longer work hours. Moving to a new country has led to feelings of loneliness. We often forget to look beyond the goal and see the impact that it will really have on our lives.
We aren’t very good at knowing how we will feel
We are often not that good at predicting how we will feel in the future. This is known as affective forecasting and we often just miss the mark on how we will actually feel when something happens, either positive or negative. We are surprisingly adaptable and we can adjust to our new experiences very quickly, and feelings of happiness wear off sooner than expected. That’s why in the classic example of lottery winners, they often don’t report any significant changes in happiness a year after winning.
We want to hit a new goal
Have you ever achieved something and immediately turned your attention to the next thing? Had your first 100k year, now you want 200k? Maybe you’ve lost 10kg and now you’re thinking about losing another 5kg? Many of us, particularly high achievers, are always looking to the next big shiny goal and forget quickly about the one we just achieved.
So how do we avoid the Arrival Fallacy?
If reaching our goals doesn’t actually make us happy then should we stop goal setting? Absolutely not. Tal Ben-Shahar also acknowledges the vital importance of setting goals. We know that it’s crucial for our self-confidence and sense of fulfillment to have goals and progress towards them. There are a few things we can do to avoid falling into the arrival fallacy and set goals in a healthy, meaningful way.
- Don't make your happiness conditional to reaching your goal. Understand that the real joy is coming from the process of working towards something. This is known as the pre-goal attainment positive effect, and is how psychologists term the incremental way our happiness increases as we work towards a goal. It really is the journey and not the destination that’s important. Hitting the goal is just the cherry on the cake of a long journey of success.
- Before you jump into setting goals, try to spend time really digging into what you want and discovering more about who you are. This step is often overlooked in goal setting, and it’s the reason the UltimateYou Planner starts with a coaching style section to help our customers understand themselves better before they get planning their goals. Great goal setting starts with self-awareness of what will truly make us happy.
- Make sure that you always have other goals to reach so that you continue to have ambitions beyond one goal. For the same reasons many otherwise healthy people die early after retiring, we need to have goals and have a purpose to feel happy. So if you have only one goal and reach it, you might find yourself feeling slightly lost. Align your goals so that as you’re approaching the end of one, you can start working on something new.
- Maintain an attitude of positivity and gratitude for what you have achieved. Don’t forget to take some time to look backwards and measure your success by where you’ve come from, not where you’re going to. Take time to reflect and celebrate when you reach a goal - all of your hard work has paid off and you deserve to enjoy that feeling for as long as you can.