Do any of these sound familiar?
I’ll be happy when I get that promotion.
I’ll be happy when I lose 50 pounds.
I’ll be happy when I’m making six figures per year.
Most of us tend to believe that our happiness is a byproduct of us achieving our goals. We routinely tie our happiness to an end-state that is currently a level above where we find ourselves in this particular moment.
Yet, even when we reach those new levels, the feeling of accomplishment never seems to last. We receive a jolt of happiness for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, but eventually the “high” wears off, and we end up right back where we started. In some cases, we often feel even more empty and broken than before.
Why doesn’t setting goals and achieving them give us the long-lasting happiness that we desperately crave? And more importantly, what do we do about it?
We’re going to discuss all of that in this article.
How Achieving Goals Can Actually Sabotage Your Happiness
Recently, I was reading a great article by A.C. Shilton, a writer for The New York Times.
The article, titled, “You Accomplished Something Great. So Now What?”, talks about her experience with fleeting happiness coming off one of the biggest stories of her professional career. When describing how she felt after perhaps the greatest accomplishment of her career, she writes:
“A little over a year ago, I drove home from the airport with the windows down and the radio on full blast after filming the last scenes for the Netflix docu-series “The Innocent Man.” I was so proud of the work I’d done investigating two wrongful murder convictions in a small city in Oklahoma in the 1980s. This was work that mattered, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.
A few days later, I sat in my truck and cried. An empty work schedule yawned before me, and I was sure that my most meaningful achievement was in my rearview mirror.”
This wave of hopelessness that came over Shilton has a name — the arrival fallacy.
The Arrival Fallacy
The person responsible for coining this term is a Harvard-trained positive psychology expert named Tal-Ben Shahar.
Shahar explains that “Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.”
Shahar also goes on to say that this is the main reason that many high-performers and celebrities tend to struggle with mental health problems and substance abuse issues. In fact, many studies show that rates of anxiety and depression are actually highest among those who are in the high-income tax brackets of society.
This mindset of “I’ll be happy when” is destructive towards your emotional state, mainly due to the fact that it ties your level of happiness to some future event — without realizing that there are opportunities to be happy now.
Why Doesn’t Happiness Last?
At the end of the day, happiness is a temporary emotion. Yet, most people are chasing it as if it were a permanent state that can be attained.
The reason happiness is fleeting comes down to a principle called hedonic adaptation.
As humans, we are remarkably proficient at adapting to changes in our lives. If we didn’t develop the ability to quickly adapt to our surroundings, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t exist right now. We should feel incredibly lucky that our ancestors developed this trait, as it’s necessary for our survival. It allows us to get through difficult times and adapt to changes in our environment.
However, when it comes to happiness, this trait is not our friend. When we buy a new car, or make new friends, or get a huge raise, the problem is that we adapt too quickly. These “new” things become familiar to us.
When you first get the keys to your new home, you’re going to feel an enormous wave of happiness. But once you’ve been living in that home for six months, it’s simply going to become a normal part of your life. That exhilarating dose of happiness you felt is just temporary, and it slowly fades away as you adapt to your new environment. The shiny object that you’ve been chasing for years is no longer shiny.
At the end of the day, happiness is an emotion. And just like any other emotion — anger, fear, excitement, nervousness — it’s temporary.
So while it’s impossible for you to feel happy all the time, it is possible for you to increase your baseline level of happiness and live a more fulfilling life. Let’s talk about some of the easiest ways to be happy that don’t rely on accomplishment.
4 Tips to Live a Happier Life
Tip #1: Practice daily gratitude.
Gratitude is one of the easiest ways to make yourself happier. As human beings, we possess something called negativity bias. Thousands of years ago, we needed to constantly scan our environment for potential threats or else we would not have survived. This is why we tend to place more emphasis on negative events than positive ones. Remembering our “close calls” that made us feel afraid and anxious in the will helped us survive.
By taking a few minutes out of your day to write down a few things you’re grateful for, you’re actually rewiring your brain to think more positively. In their article titled, How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain, Joshua Brown and Joel Wong analyzed the impact that daily gratitude had on the mental health of nearly 300 college students.
Their findings showed that people who practiced daily gratitude for three weeks reported a significant increase in their mental health four, and even twelve weeks after their exercise ended. Multiple studies like this have repeatedly come to the same conclusion — people who make gratitude a normal part of their life are less anxious, less depressed, and enjoy higher life satisfaction.
Tip #2: Be present.
I know this sounds a bit cliche, as it seems like every personal development blog out there is telling you the same thing — “Just be present, and your life will fall into place.”
While being present isn’t the end all, be all to feeling happy, it does play a role in how we experience our life. It’s easy to let our minds wander and imagine a better future or think about negative events that have happened to us in the past, and each time we do we miss a golden opportunity to enjoy the moment in front of us.
The past is real, but you can’t change it. The future is not real, as it’s just a product of your imagination. So if you’re constantly spending your day thinking about something that you either can’t change, or can’t control, how are you supposed to enjoy your life?
A simple practice that you can use is the 5-4-3-2-1 method developed by Mel Robbins. Whenever you catch yourself ruminating about the past or daydreaming about the future, simply count down from 5 and bring yourself back to the present moment. The more mindful you are of your mind’s tendency to wander, the easier it will be to be fully engaged in whatever you are doing.
Tip #3: Don’t compare yourself to anyone, just improve yourself.
The rise of social media has made it easier than ever before to compare our lives to the lives of others. As Wesley Snipes said:
“Don’t let the internet rush you, no one is posting their failures.”
Comparison is the thief of joy. If you want to lose weight, you’re going to get discouraged when you see Instagram models and bodybuilders plastered all over your Instagram feed. It’s going to serve as a constant reminder of how far away you are from your desired state, which de-motivates you.
If you want to be happier, compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today.
When trying to make a change in your life, you have to realize that there are other people who have already achieved more than you have along that particular dimension– whether it’s health, finances, relationships, etc.
If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, it would be ridiculous to compare yourself to the likes of Gary Vaynerchuk, who has built a business enterprise worth over $200 million. Even if you do end up reaching his level, it likely will be decades before you are able to replicate his success. However, you can work on yourself and improve your knowledge so that you’re a more skilled entrepreneur than you were last month. And if you keep doing that month after month, then maybe one day you’ll be considered an all-time great.
Remember that everyone who seems to have it “made” in a certain area of their life was once in your shoes. The only standard you should use as a benchmark for success is your former self.
Tip #4: Focus on changing your identity, not your outcomes.
When it comes to happiness, goals are overrated. The problem with tying your happiness to a certain goal is that achieving a goal only changes your state temporarily. Most people set goals with the aim to change their outcomes — whether that be the number they see when they step on the scale or look at their bank account.
However, when you focus on changing your identity as opposed to your outcomes, you are centering in on the deepest level of change — which is changing your self-image and your beliefs about yourself.
Think about it like this. Let’s say that you set a goal to lose 50 pounds in six months. Over the next six months, you walk every day, improve your diet, and reduce the amount of junk food you consume on a daily basis. At the end of six months, you step on the scale and see that you’ve dropped 38 pounds.
Did you achieve your goal? Nope. You were twelve pounds short.
However, what if your goal was to simply live a healthier lifestyle? Did you accomplish that goal? Absolutely! You not only lost weight, but more importantly you took control of your bad eating habits and finally made exercise an integral part of your life. In other words, you changed your identity, and more importantly rearranged your previously held beliefs about yourself.
When striving to make progress in any area of your life, focus on the type of person you want to become as opposed to the outcomes you want to achieve. Doing so will ensure that your success is not tied to an arbitrary target that you may or may not hit.
If you take anything away from this article, let it be this — if you think that accomplishing your goals is the key to finding happiness, prepare to be disappointed.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t set goals and aspire to achieve them. Successful people didn’t get where they are by accident. They had a plan, and they executed on those plans.
Just don’t lose sight of the big picture. Put more focus on your everyday thoughts and behaviors and craft a lifestyle that makes you fulfilled.
Happiness is a temporary state. No matter how much money you make, or how many cars you buy, you will always want more. It’s how we’re wired. Find happiness in the journey of constant self-improvement, as it’s in that journey where you’ll find the joy in your life.