Why Reaching Your Goals Will Never Make You Happy

The arrival fallacy, hedonistic adaption, and more

Let’s do a fun exercise. Fill in the blank:

“I’ll feel successful when ….”, or

“I’ll be happy when….”, or

“Everything will be fine once…”

What did you fill? More importantly, do they sound familiar?

These statements are all too common in our lives. We say or think about them almost every day. I know I do.

One such statement for me was “When I have a post go viral on Medium, I’ll be happy.”

Humans are designed to strive for achievement. We need to have goals. Goals, above everything else, give us hope. Something to look forward to. There’s nothing inherently wrong about them.

So why the hell am I writing this article?

Because when you reach the goals that you passionately set for yourself, you don’t feel any different.

I did have a post go viral but that didn’t make me a better writer. Sure I was feeling good for a few hours as my earnings started to shoot up.

Finishing a big project may come with a sense of satisfaction that lasts for a few minutes along with a long-due weekend to chill. But what after that?

Or landing a big client may get you butterflies in the stomach but soon you realize there’s even more work to worry about.

Getting a few inches off your waist may get you some compliments but you soon realize you’ll have to work all your life to not gain the weight back.

You see where I’m going?

Enter Arrival Fallacy

The term “arrival fallacy” was first introduced by Dr. Ben-Shahar in his book Happier. Being a young elite squash player, he first realized the effects of the arrival fallacy:

“I thought that 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.”

That, in fact, sums up how we all feel after achieving any goal.

You see, the process of working towards a goal makes us feel good — by triggering reward centers in the brain. After we set a goal, we continue to think about it until we achieve it. This can take weeks, months, or years.

The more you think about it the more you fantasize about the outcome. You think about all the ways in which your life would be different once you reach the destination.

This creates an illusion of perfection which makes you less happy when you actually achieve your goal.

Meaning, the process of trying to achieve it becomes so much a part of your identity that you’re hooked.

Dr. Ben-Shahar also explains why Hollywood stars often struggle with mental health issues:

“These individuals start out unhappy, but they say to themselves, ‘It’s O.K. because when I make it, then I’ll be happy,’” he said. But then they make it, and while they may feel briefly fulfilled, the feeling doesn’t last. “This time, they’re unhappy, but more than that they’re unhappy without hope,” he explained. “Because before they lived under the illusion — well, the false hope — that once they make it, then they’ll be happy.”

It’s not only that you don’t feel happy. You instead feel hopeless and empty. As Mark Manson argues in his book Everything is Fucked, humans need hope to live. Without hope, there’s nothing to look forward too.

And so in that fleeting moment of achievement, you realize you need another goal. Ergo, the vicious cycle begins.

Over time, if you’re not aware enough, it can lead you to strive for external confirmation, success, and material possessions — in place of happiness. There’s no limit to the ante.

The truth is every goal changes your life in both ways — for good and for bad — depending on how you see it.

The Proverbial Carrot at the End of the Stick

Arrival fallacy isn’t the only trap.

Humans are great at adapting to circumstances. Imagine if the government raised the taxes tomorrow by 10%. No matter how much you cry, you’ll have to pay them. And you’ll adjust your life accordingly.

This is as true for good times as it is for bad ones.

Once you achieve a goal and celebrate your win — say by buying a new car, clothes, bigger apartment, etc — it becomes the new normal. Again, you adjust your life accordingly and now you want something more.

This “hedonic adaption” explains why we keep striving for more, thinking “This time I’ll be happy.” But as you already know, it will never lead to lasting happiness.

You’ll always be the donkey chasing the carrot at the end of the stick.

Happiness expert, Gillian Mandich, says:

“People often focus too much on the salient high points (the vacation, voyage, or feast) and too little on the day-to-day events that have a more profound effect on overall happiness.”

Further, she says, “only 10% of our happiness is determined by our circumstances, while 40% of our happiness is determined by our everyday thoughts and behavior and 50% of our happiness is genetically determined.”

Ergo, thinking that success is equal to happiness isn’t going to cut it since it accounts for 10% of your happiness, at most.

Should We Stop Setting Goals?

No. As I said, we cannot live without goals or checkpoints to look forward to.

The problem is not the goal itself, rather, the romantic fantasies we have about the goal. Though cliche, it’s always better to fall in love with the process and not the goal.

Only you can control the effect that your goals have on you. Since we may resort to an unhealthy relationship with our goals by default, there are a few ways to escape the trap.

Dig Deeper

There’s always a deeper meaning behind our goals. If you evaluate the goals on their face value, you’ll tread a path of profound emptiness.

For example, you don’t want to just get a bigger client for the sake of it. You have an ulterior motive — you may want to grow the business, expand, get more employees, and leave a legacy.

Once you dig deep into why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s easy to set realistic expectations. This way, when you do achieve your short-term goal, you’ll not be in for an unpleasant surprise.

The realization of the deeper motive takes the goal off of the pedestal.

Every goal has a deeper motive. Find out yours.

Make the Process Your North Star

To make anything great, you need to love what you’re doing. People who create an impact aren’t only after big raises and fat checks.

In fact, the companies that offer big bonuses to employees thinking it’ll improve their performance are often mistaken. It leads to the opposite result — they start caring less and come up with subpar ideas.

Once their basic financial needs are met, the only way to motivate them is to make them feel an intrinsic desire to contribute and master their craft.

In every craft, you reach a level where the results don’t matter. You do it for the fun of it. Whether it’s writing, making sales, or building software.

  • The feeling of creating something out of a blank page for a writer.

  • The feeling of closing a deal for the salesperson.

  • The feeling of building something great after ten hours of coding.

These small, daily moments of joy matter more than the big hairy goals that you reach once in a while.

In fact, the truth is, you don’t *have *to value the process. You already do. High-achievers usually crave the adrenaline rush that comes from trying rather than the goal itself.

You just need to realize this truth and thus, value the outcome less.

You Fall to the Level of Your Systems

I was first introduced to this idea by James Clear. It makes perfect sense. You don’t rise to the level of your goals, no matter how big they are.

Ultimately, your success is determined by what you do every day, i.e. your system for goal-achievement.

Systems take the thinking out of the picture. Once you have a great system to make you successful, you can lose yourself in the process.

For instance, if I keep thinking about hitting a certain number of readers, I cannot do anything but paralyze myself. Yet, if I make a daily habit of writing and reading, I can be on the way to that goal in no time.

Want to lose a few pounds? Walk every evening.

Want to get a new client? Reach out to ten people every day.

Want to learn something new? Spend thirty minutes every day on it.

Ironically, the best way to achieve a goal is to shift your focus away from it and focus on systems instead.

I Made Every Single One of The Mistakes I’m Talking About

It’s not easy to rise above the arrival fallacy. I’ve succumbed to it multiple times:

  • Thinking that a viral post will make me happy

  • Thinking that raising a round of funding for my startup would make me happy

  • Thinking that taking a course would get me where I want to be

  • Thinking that everything will be fine if I just pick the right fund to invest in

I’ve succeeded in all those things. But never really felt happy. And all these experiences changed the way I look at life.

What did I do to get around it? Exactly what I told you above.

I don’t set goals anymore. I rather focus on the process, build systems, and live every day to maximize my happiness.

Goals are just checkpoints; they’re like the scoreboard you look at occasionally while playing the game. Because if you’re waiting to reach a goal to stop playing the game, why are you playing at all?

As I learned to not attach my happiness with the arbitrary goals I set for myself, I found the process became that much easier.

Final Thought

Success is made-up. All definitions of success are arbitrary at best. They come from your environment, upbringing, life situation, and a hundred other variables.

After ten years, even you won’t appreciate the things that you crave today. The only thing that will be the same is your craving for new goals.

So don’t fix your eyes on one prize. Keep an open mind, love the process, and pick up the small wins along the way.

To sum up, happiness is not about reaching the summit, it’s about climbing it.

Are you serious about becoming the best version of yourself? Get your free 5-day email course to Master The Art Of Personal Transformation.

Written on October 12, 2020