Veterinarians are typically driven individuals who can set goals and achieve them. Just getting admitted to veterinary school required dedication to getting top grades in difficult classes such as calculus and organic chemistry. Once into veterinary school, the drive to be the best didn’t let up. With exams every few weeks, and so many things to learn, pushing through to the next goal was essential. The prize was graduation, followed by the next goal of a prestigious internship (for most), then a residency or a great associate position. With each next step, there was the pleasure of anticipating the happiness that would be granted with each new achievement.
Unfortunately, that happiness is often fleeting, if it is experienced at all. Many people actually feel a letdown upon reaching a goal. They immediately think “What’s next?” and respond by choosing a new destination to climb to, thinking it will help them feel better. During the struggle to the next pinnacle, they tell themselves: “I’ll achieve happiness when …”
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive-psychology expert who trained at Harvard University, coined the phrase Arrival Fallacy. He defines it as the false assumption that once you reach a goal, you will experience enduring happiness. Unfortunately, despite the American Dream telling us that hard work and achievement deliver a happy life, achievement doesn’t equal happiness over the long term.1
In the book “Learning to Be Sad,” the author describes an interview with Ben-Shahar, during which he described training for years to finish an expedition to the North Pole—training that was arduous and painful. When the actual trip arrived and he succeeded, he described feeling nothing when standing on the top of the world. Not a shred of happiness, just exhaustion and cold.
Why the Arrival Fallacy Affects Us
Why are so many people afflicted by the Arrival Fallacy? In a study by the Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers found that nearly two-thirds of youth reported that both their parents and peers would rank achievement above kindness and caring for others.2 Achievement as a path to a happy life is deeply ingrained in our society. People consistently believe that more money, more prestige, more education, a better job or a bigger house will make them happier. But it simply isn’t true, according to researchers in happiness. According to Ben-Shahar, “The Number 1 predictor of happiness is the quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. In other words, relationships.”
How to Prevent the Disappointment of the Arrival Fallacy
Preventing the disappointment of the Arrival Fallacy comes from enjoying the process of achieving a goal. To this end, it might be helpful to set smaller goals to celebrate along the way toward the bigger goal. Looking for the perfect associate job? Look for innovative ideas and practice tips at every practice you visit. Writing a book? Celebrate the completion of each chapter, or maybe each page! Training for a marathon? Celebrate the first five-mile run, then the first six-mile run.
Another tip is to stay in the present and enjoy the life you have right now. Is it a beautiful, sunny day? Savor the warmth of the sun on a cold day. Do you have a child or a dog that fills you with love? Stop and notice your gratitude for their presence in your life. In fact, keeping a gratitude journal can be one of the most powerful ways to increase your happiness. At the end of each day (or whenever you decide works best for you), spend five minutes writing down what you are grateful for in that moment. They can be simple things—that your kid didn’t have a meltdown at bath time, that you got a supportive text from a friend, that you remembered to pick up milk on the way home.
Maintaining close relationships can be the most important step of all. Sometimes those connections have weakened because you made huge sacrifices to reach your goal. You might have worked long hours and neglected your own health and wellbeing, spent little time with family and friends, and dedicated your life to achieving your objective. The result might be that you are feeling isolated, alone and unhappy once the achievement is made. A vicious circle can ensue if you then move on to pursue yet another step that you are sure will bring the happiness that eludes you. Instead, try leaning into closeness with the people around you to increase your contentment. Slowing down and connecting can make all the difference.