Career success doesn’t always equal happiness, so here’s how to deal when achieving a goal leaves you feeling empty inside.


You finally did it.

You got the promotion, secured the raise, finished the project or otherwise leveled up in your career. It’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment! You should be proud!

But then you come down from that high, and reality starts to sink in: Where do you go from here?

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 has a name: I was experiencing 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,” said Tal Ben-Shahar, the Harvard-trained positive psychology expert who is credited with coining the term.

Dr. Ben-Shahar said arrival fallacy is the reason some Hollywood stars struggle with mental health issues and substance abuse later in life.

“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.”

The problem is that achievement doesn’t equal happiness — at least not over the long term. But this isn’t a message that most of us are familiar with. In fact, it’s almost antithetical to the American dream, which tells us that hard work and achievement deliver a happy life. And so we push our children to become captain of the travel soccer squad, a first-chair player in the orchestra and student body president, because we want them to be successful. We want them to be happy.

And then, when they’re 34, fresh off a big achievement and so deeply unhappy that they find themselves sobbing in their truck in a Walmart parking lot (hello again, it’s me), they could end up feeling as though something is inherently broken within them.

Dr. Ben-Shahar coined the term “arrival fallacy” after experiencing its effects as a young elite squash player.

“I thought if I win this tournament that then I’ll be happy,” he said. “And I won, and I was happy. And then the same stress and pressure and emptiness returned.”

Research suggests he and I are not alone. He cited a 1998 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which professors who had either received or been denied tenure in the preceding five years were asked to rate their happiness. Tenure is the golden snitch of academia: It grants job security, prestige and, usually, a bump in pay, so you’d expect the tenured professors to be significantly more satisfied with their jobs. However, both groups reported similar levels of happiness.

This study also asked assistant professors, who had yet to be considered for tenure, how happy they thought achieving that goal would make them. These professors consistently overestimated the amount of joy that was headed their way. That overestimation was most likely a result of something called affective forecasting, said Jamie Gruman, a professor and senior research fellow at the University of Guelph in Canada.

“Affective forecasting is our ability to predict how events will make us feel,” Dr. Gruman said. He pointed to a study from 2000 that showed that college sports fans overestimated how happy they would be a few days after their team won a big game.

“We tend to be pretty good at knowing what things are going to make us happy and unhappy,” he said, “but we’re not very good at predicting the intensity and the duration of the effect of events.” That can leave us feeling let down after the fact.

Achievements also come with consequences we may not always see coming. The tendency to fixate only on the upside is called focalism, Dr. Gruman said. As he tells the students in his business management courses: “You guys want so badly to be managers, but you know what? It’s probably going to be very different than what you think it’s going to be. You know what? You might not even like it.” The same is true of people who gain visibility in most fields.

And truly, achieving something — whether it’s an award, a promotion or a bathtub full of Benjamins — doesn’t guarantee happiness, Dr. Ben-Shahar said.

“The No. 1 predictor of happiness,” he said, is the “quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. In other words, relationships.”

However, income matters. “There’s no joy in living in squalor,” Dr. Gruman said. But after basic needs like food, security and clean housing are met, income stops correlating with happiness. In 2012, the World Happiness Report, produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, said that cooperation and community may contribute more to happiness in wealthy societies than income or other metrics.

If relationships make us happy, the fact that many of us neglect our relationships in pursuit of career success may further squelch our joy. Focusing on a career at the expense of, say, a marriage, could ultimately leave us feeling lonely and unmoored.

To be clear, acknowledging the power of arrival fallacy does not mean we should settle for a life of mediocrity.

“We need to have goals,” Dr. Ben-Shahar said. “We need to think about the future.” And, he noted, we are also a “future-oriented” species. In fact, studies have shown that the mortality rate rises by 2 percentamong men who retire right when they become eligible to collect Social Security, and that retiring early may lead to early death, even among those who are healthy when they do so. Purpose and meaning can generate satisfaction, which is part of the happiness equation, Dr. Gruman said.

So wait. Reaching a goal can make us unhappy, but setting goals makes us happy? It sounds like a conundrum, but it’s not if you plan correctly, Dr. Ben-Shahar said. His advice is to lay out multiple concurrent goals, both in and out of your work life. This was probably one of my problems. I had focused so intently on finishing one project that I had scrubbed my calendar clean of any other distractions. And the term “goal” can be applied loosely. Even just aiming to spend more quality time with your children or make new friends through volunteer work counts. (If you’re looking for advice on setting goals, read this.)

Also, you should banish any sentences like this: “I’ll be happy if I can just achieve X.” Dr. Gruman recently conducted a study in which he asked participants to rate their desire for happiness. The more they thought about how to make themselves happier, or worried about their happiness levels relative to their peers, the less happy they actually were.

However, Dr. Gruman’s study also found that participants engaging in activities that made them happy correlated with overall happiness. In other words, don’t think, just do the things that make you feel good. If working hard makes you feel good, then great. Dive in. Just don’t expect getting that promotion or winning that Pulitzer to punch your ticket to bliss.

Source: NY Times

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