Congratulations, you’ve reached your goal! You’ve landed that big promotion, nailed the presentation, or finally taken that luxury vacation you’ve been looking forward to.
You’ve worked hard for this moment, but for some reason…you feel sort of, well, empty.
This widespread phenomenon has been deemed “the arrival fallacy,” defined by positive psychologist Dr. Ben-Shahar as the “false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.”
As humans, we’re not very good at “affective forecasting,” or predicting how happy something will make us. In a culture that reinforces the importance of career and commercial success, we think we’ll win the happiness game when we achieve that “one thing”: upgrade our devices, buy a nicer car, or score that promotion. In reality, these things don’t keep us happy for long. Studies on people who win the lottery, for example, show that just 18 months later, winners aren’t any happier than non-winners. Because of something called “hedonic adaptation,” our brains naturally adjust to new opportunities until they, too, are the norm.
There are ways to beat the arrival fallacy at its own game, however. Try these four proven strategies to feel the full effects of your success and arrive at the kind of happiness that lasts a lifetime:
1. Set Meaningful Goals
One psychologist found that the more you think about what could make you happy, or worry about your happiness levels relative to the people around you, the less happy you actually are. So, external markers of success: the car, the money, the job…those things don’t universally lead to happiness. Happiness is of your own creation and is therefore completely individual.
Success Strategy: Do a deep dive to define what makes you happy. And then don’t just think about it…do it. Spend less time wondering whether a goal is good enough, and instead, do things that put you in a state of flow: a sweet spot of intrinsic joy that makes the time fly—and your heart soar.
Whether it’s helping others achieve their potential, improving your physical fitness, or creating art, that motivation is strongest when it comes from within. So you’ll be more likely to put in the work and overcome obstacles if you’re pursuing a goal that you’re naturally passionate about.
2. Don’t Postpone Joy
When we push those goalposts further out (“I’ll be happy when…”), we put positive feelings on hold, missing opportunities to feel them in the present. Don’t wait to feel pride or joy. Instead, make a practice of savoring these feelings every day.
Success Strategy: Write down 3 Great Things: Take inventory of the small things in your environment that bring you joy, such as the sun shining through your window, or that first sip of coffee in the morning. And keep a Win List to track the things that bring you pride along the way to that big goal: Maybe you finally got around to cleaning your inbox, or you made it to the gym after a long day. Creating small moments of joy and gratitude is a proven way to cultivate long-term happiness that lasts long after you’ve achieved your goal.
3. See the Big Picture
Studies show that meaningful relationships are the number one predictor of lifelong happiness, and yet quality time with others is often the first thing we forgo in pursuit of our goals. While it’s important to keep your eye on the prize, it’s equally as important to maintain the activities—and nurture the relationships—that ground and fulfill you along the way.
Success Strategy: Schedule a coffee date with a friend—even when you feel too busy, keep up with your daily journaling practice, or take your coworker out to lunch in the midst of a grueling assignment. Tending to these important areas of your life lowers your stress and ensures that you have other outlets to derive joy from once you’ve closed the chapter on your big goal.
4. Savor the Journey
So often, we miss opportunities to learn, grow, and connect en route to our goals because we define success solely by the end result. But the process is part of the goal, too: What you learn, how you improve, and the experiences you create along the way all enrich the final product and deepen the gratification you feel once you cross the finish line.
Success Strategy: Approach each step with a beginner’s mindset. Take the time to reflect on: How you’re feeling, what you’re learning, and how far you’ve come. Commemorate and share your experiences through a journal, blog, or photo album. Or meet up with others who share your goal to enrich your sense of purpose and progress. You’ll never be at exactly this stage of your process again, so even when it feels challenging, try to stay present and ask what the experience has to offer. You’ll ultimately gain much more than just the achievement of the end result.
Success is subjective and situational. Sometimes it means creating new opportunities. Often it means optimizing the ones you already have. Above all, it can be sustained by building good habits, such as practicing gratitude, cultivating joy, and savoring wherever you’re at right now—even as you work towards your future.