The Surprising Downside of Achieving Your Goals

What happens when accomplishing your career objectives leaves you feeling more stressed out than when you started them?

Courtesy of Sarote Pruksachat / Getty Images
Courtesy of Sarote Pruksachat / Getty Images

Achievement. Success. Happiness. Goal-reaching is often associated with one, if not all, of these ideas. But what happens when accomplishing your career objectives actually leaves you feeling worse than when you started them?

After spending an extended period of time striving for one specific goal, it is common to experience a comedown once you achieve it, often marked by sensations of hopelessness, lack of fulfillment, and similar feelings associated with depression. This typically occurs when someone operates under the assumption that achieving a certain goal will make them happy. That kind of attitude can lead to extreme disappointment when, in the end, your success doesn’t feel as good as you had anticipated.

Additionally, when we allow goals — especially career-related goals — to take over our lives and our happiness, we can wind up neglecting other important parts of life as well, such as personal relationships, or non-work related hobbies. This imbalance can further exacerbate feelings of depression, despair, or lack of purpose.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to try and combat this phenomenon, which positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., calls “arrival fallacy.” Read on for a few expert tips.

Find a new goal to strive towards

“Because human beings are remarkably good at adapting to — or getting used to — positive changes in their lives, they are likely to feel dissatisfied after reaching major success goals,” Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, tells Thrive. Ben-Shahar adds, “Understand that happiness is about the journey, not the destination. This means that the most important aspect is not reaching our goal — no matter how significant it is — but rather having a goal and striving towards it.” If you find yourself prone to sadness or stress after you’ve accomplished what you were seeking to, try Ben-Shahar’s method of proactively creating new goals for yourself. “Once I reach one milestone, I come up with another, and another — and my joy is derived from being on the path towards the goal,” he says.

Define success on your own terms

It’s not a good idea to rely on achieving your goals to bring you happiness, Lyubomirsky notes. “If you think, ‘I’ll only be happy once I achieve X,’ you’ll invariably be disappointed,” she points out. “So much of how we feel is determined by our expectations,” Ben-Shahar adds. “If I expect the high, the energy, and the excitement to last eternally, then I’m bound to be disappointed and frustrated. If, however, my expectations are realistic — not low or high, but realistic — then I’m more likely to take things as they come, embracing the ups and the downs.”

Give yourself a break

Rather than hyperfocusing on the future, take a moment to sit back and appreciate what you have already accomplished, Ben-Shahar says. “Research from Harvard Business School shows that employees who focus on the progress they made at work are happier and more successful. Focusing on progress means not taking things for granted.”

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