Why achieving that big life goal has left you feeling flat

Written by Elizabeth Heeley

Ticked that major life goal off your list only to find that it didn’t bring the instant happiness, gratification and contentment you were hoping for? You might be have fallen foul of the “arrival fallacy”. Here’s how to get some perspective, so you can learn to live in the moment.

You did it. You got the promotion/bought a house/got married/made it from couch to 5K. And it feels great! Well, it feels OK, doesn’t it? It’ll do. For now.

It’s a frustrating fact of life that we, the internet generation, are becoming increasingly goal-orientated, and convinced that certain achievements have the power to transform us. Like in a classic movie montage, we believe we can become better versions of ourselves overnight: new, improved, happier. After all, when we reach [insert particular goal] everything in our lives will finally fall into place. Right? Cue the “arrival fallacy”.

What is the arrival fallacy?

Put simply, the arrival fallacy is the illusion that once we reach our goals, we reach happiness. Harvard Psychologist Dr Tal Ben-Shahar coined the term in his book Happier: Can You Learn To Be Happy? after experiencing the notion as an elite squash player.

“I thought, ‘If I win this tournament, then I’ll be happy’,” he said. “And I won, and I was happy. And then the same stress and pressure and emptiness returned.”

The problem is that achieving something – whether it be a PB or an OBE – doesn’t guarantee contentment in the long term, or even the short term. We quickly become adjusted to our new position in the pecking order, and arriving at one goal usually uncovers another. Essentially, there’s always one new box to tick.

Vanessa, 30, had always had her heart set on becoming a lawyer. Fast-forward 10 years of non-stop study, and she had finally qualified as a Chartered Trademark Attorney.

“Soon after the initial celebrations, I started to wonder what was next,” she told Stylist. “I was used to a feeling of relief and short-lived happiness on completing each exam (until the next one loomed, at least). But, I’d always expected to feel finally and fully content on qualifying. Instead, my mind started whirling with ways to excel in my new profession – the qualification was no longer enough. Two years on, and now head of UK trademarks at my firm, I still perpetually wonder what the next two years will bring.”

Vanessa’s story is far from unique. Jemma, 38, had always equated success with income. “I’ve been reading ‘The Forbes 400’ list like a bible since I was 16,” she told Stylist. “Everything I did – from my first Saturday job to my crazy-long working hours later in life – was about making more money. My all-encompassing life goal was to hit a six-figure salary.” 

But, last year, after being offered just that by a well-known London investment bank, she sat in her new, top-of-the-range company car and cried: “It was time for a new perspective – I had lost too many relationships in my quest for success and I was well and truly exhausted.”

In Happier, Dr Ben-Shahar proposes that – as opposed to monetary success – “the number one predictor of happiness is the quality time we spend with the people we care about and who care about us.” Essentially, our happiness doesn’t come from having loads of money, but valued, and valuable, relationships.

While income is important, research says that there is a threshold as to how much money actually correlates to happiness. A survey of 1,000 participants found that happiness rose in line with salary, but only until people earned around £50,000. “Further increases in income no longer improve the ability to do what matters most to our emotional well-being, such as spending time with people we like, avoiding pain and disease and enjoying leisure,” said Daniel Kahneman, one of the psychologists who carried out the study at Princeton University.

How to overcome the arrival fallacy

Joy Sereda, a Registered Psychotherapist and Clinical Counsellor, suggests a three-step approach:

1. Enjoy today

“Most of us can probably recall family outings as a child, asking: ‘Mum are we there yet? Are we there yet?’. We were so focused on getting to the final destination, that our minds were already there and our bodies desperate to catch up. I vividly recall hearing my mum’s response: ‘We’ll get there when we get there. Why don’t you just look out the window and enjoy the drive?’

“My 10-year-old self might not have realised it, but she was onto something. Allowing ourselves to mentally live in the future (at our goal destination) keeps us from enjoying the present moment. We may neglect to appreciate the people, places and opportunities around us when we have ‘tunnel vision’. So, shift your focus off the destination and let yourself gaze out the window, appreciate the scenery and enjoy the ride.”

2. Identify your own values

“As children we were pushed to become the captain of our sports team, head girl or first-chair player in the orchestra because our parents wanted us to be successful – they wanted us to be happy. Sounds great. However, it’s not realistic or sustainable. Because our goals are often set by someone else: society, the media, our parents or our partner, we rarely pause and reflect if these goals are aligned with our own values.

“If you achieve a goal that is closely aligned with your personal values, you are far more likely to feel content when you do. If you value routine and stability for example, you should set about finding a career in a field that provides that. Take time to really assess your values and what serves you best before setting your next goal.”

3. Manage your expectations

“Someone once told me that ‘the source of all disappointment is unrealistic expectation’. We often confuse expectation with desire – just because we want something to be wonderful and fulfilling, doesn’t mean that it necessarily will be. 

“I have witnessed this sense of disillusion over and over in my clinic – clients who have built unrealistic expectations of that new job, of life after the wedding, of being parents, of retirement and so on. The reality is, if you expect to have all of your needs met once you meet a certain goal, you are going to end up disappointed. Take a moment to try and tease apart what is a ‘desire’ and what is ‘realistic’. If you hold realistic expectations, you avoid experiencing unnecessary disappointment and may even give yourself the opportunity to enjoy your accomplishments.”

Images: Getty, Unsplash.

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