July 8, 2019

'I'll be happy after I accomplish…'

Oof. Ever thought this? Perhaps a few hundred times? Same here.

You can enter this repetitive train of thought when you're reaching for a great big goal. All of your energy is focused on the finish line. Maybe it's a metaphorical finish line—like achieving a promotion or graduating or finally learning how to pluck a Lizzo song on your guitar—or a literal one, like if you're training for your first 5K.

You can put all your hopes and dreams into getting there…and then, miraculously, you do!

But then what?

That's when a bit of disappointment can come in. Because the truth is, you're the same person you were before you reached the finish line, even though now you have another notch on your belt. What you thought might transform you can actually leave you feeling empty.

This feeling has a name—it's the "arrival fallacy."

“Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness,” positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar, who came up with the term, told the New York Times.

"Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness."
- Tal Ben-Shahar
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No surprise: It's a flawed concept. A recent study showed that people who worry about their levels of happiness—like those "I'll be happy when…" thoughts—actually tend to be unhappier.

Yes, it's good to set meaningful goals and stretch yourself—but that should only be part of your happiness equation, not all of it.

Rather than believing eternal happiness lies just beyond the finish line of (insert your goal here), what if instead we considered that we have most of what we need to be happy right now?

Here's how to focus on breaking out of the "arrival fallacy" and spot all the good that you have while you're in the driver's seat—instead of waiting to arrive somewhere else.

Set up happiness benchmarks along the way.

This doesn't have to be as clinical as it sounds.

Let's use training for a race as an example. Maybe you have a goal to break a certain time in a 5K, and that race is a few months in the future. Focusing on your time goal is good—it can help you stick to and find purpose in your training, especially on difficult, rainy, or sleep-deprived mornings.

You push through. Race day is here.

Now, I'm not trying to curse you, but what if you don't make your goal? What if you get a stomach cramp, or there's thunder and lightning, or your oversleep or trip? What if you fall 35 seconds short of your goal?

You'll definitely be bummed. That's understandable.

But thinking about it rationally, does it then make sense to completely discount all the hard work you did to show up at the start line? Over the training process, you learn from the highs and lows. Relying solely on the final event to determine your worth can make you forget that process.

Relying solely on the final event to determine your worth can make you forget the process.
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So along the way to accomplishing any big goal, ask yourself these happiness benchmark questions:

●︎ How is this process benefiting me?

●︎ What am I gaining?

●︎ What makes me happy right now?

Ease into living in the moment.

It's hard to type that with a straight face! But I know it's an important truth—and you do, too. If you won't listen to me, listen to someone with nine decades under her belt.

We should all take notes on the life of author Judith Viorst (who wrote a little book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day—heard of it?).

With the clear-eyed perspective of nearing 90, she wrote an essay for Glamour about how she's now the happiest she's ever been. One of the main reasons: She's stopped waiting to "arrive."

"When I was younger, I spent too much time obsessing over what would make me feel better or how I imagined a certain set of circumstances would magically transform my life and career," she writes. Today, she focuses on the right here, the right now.

Her trick? Gratitude. "For cultivating gratitude for the good stuff in our lives, being aware of and even counting our blessings, brightens our view of who we are and where we are in the world—and can make us happier."

Take time to find gratitude in your day-to-day rather than waiting to celebrate after you've crossed the finish line.

Keep setting goals.

Arrival fallacy is more prone to pop up when you've "arrived"—and look around to see that you might still carry the same stress or pressure you had before. This can happen if you sacrifice one part of your life (like friendships, relationships, work, or leisure) to achieve a remarkable goal in another part of your life.

So what you should do, per Tal Ben-Shahar in the New York Times, is create more goals.

That's right. Go crazy. If you're consistently stretching yourself, even with accessible micro-goals, you'll be less likely to succumb to that empty but-what-do-I-do-now feeling.

Because there's no need to only focus on arriving.

Trust me—you deserve to enjoy where you are right now.


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