If you are like us, you've lived your life focused on the future. You look forward to the prize, the achievement, even the thank yous. (Wait, what are those?) You count down the days until the end of a string of shifts. You picture yourself on vacation and how great it's going to be.
You're elated when these things happen! The reward centers in your brain light up. There's no dopamine quite like walking-out-of-the-hospital-for-vacation dopamine, right? But it only lasts for a short time, leaving us deflated.
How many of us thought, “If I can just get into a med school, I'll be happy,” and “Once I finish med school, I will be happy,” only to replace it with, “When I am an attending, I'll be so happy.” “When I get married....” “When I have kids....” “When I pay off my student loans....”
Guess what's next? “When I retire, I'll be so happy.” What's going on? Why is there always one more hurdle to having lasting happiness?
Arrival fallacy is a term coined by Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, a Harvard-trained positive psychologist. He described it as the “illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” He came up with the idea based on his experience as an elite squash player. When he won the Israeli national championship, he thought the happiness would be enduring. All his hard work would be worth it.
He was happy after winning, but only briefly, and then all the pressure and stress quickly returned. He explained why there are so many rich, “successful,” unhappy Hollywood stars. Many start out dissatisfied with life, but think, “It's OK because once I arrive, it will fix everything.” It doesn't. Fame and success give fleeting glee, but when the unhappiness returns, it is joined with hopelessness because fame didn't fix anything emotionally.
The achievement or destination doesn't equal long-term happiness. Temporary happiness, yes, but not lasting. This is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of us who have strived and worked so hard to get where we are. Haven't we been told our whole lives we just have to work hard to have a happy life? Isn't this the American dream? Isn't that why we want our kids to be on the honor roll and get into a good college, so they can have happiness?
We of all people should know that's not how it works. We've all worked our butts off, so we should be the happiest people on the planet, right? But a quick look around suggests the theory doesn't hold up.
Moments of Growth
Doctors frequently overwork at the expense of activities that replenish them: relationships, sleep, creative hobbies, exercise, etc. The singular focus of work can leave us unbalanced without intentional efforts in these areas.
Even worse, sometimes our “happiness” from attaining a goal isn't happiness at all. It's relief from the relentless pressure and heavy burden that we've been carrying. Relief is a positive emotion, but it is temporary. It's transiently experienced with the release of a bad feeling.
Are we supposed to stop striving for goals? No. As humans, we need meaning and purpose. There is another term Dr. Ben-Shahar coined for those who live only for momentary pleasure—floating moment fallacy. It's the false belief that happiness can be sustained by ongoing instant gratification detached from a future purpose.
It isn't the pursuit of goals that is the problem. In fact, we need purpose and meaningful aspirations. It's only a trap when goal attainment is the prerequisite for reward.
What do we do? Dr. Ben-Shahar said, “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”
The most important thing is to find happiness along the way to a worthy goal. Don't wait. Only a brief portion of your life is spent at the summit. Try to enjoy the moments of growth of becoming a more successful version of yourself, whatever success means to you. Don't let relationships suffer at the expense of the journey. According to Dr. Ben-Shahar, “The number one predictor of happiness is the quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. In other words, relationships.”
Dr. Ben-Shahar recommends creating multiple simultaneous goals in and out of your work life. The goals can be something like spending more quality time with loved ones or pursuing a creative hobby. High achievers tend to get dopamine hits from checking off things on their list, so put quality time with a loved one on the list. Put celebrating progress on your list. Whatever you do, try to erase “I'll be happier when [x] happens” from your thoughts. The right time to be happier is now.
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Clockwise from top left:Dr. Dinsmoreis an emergency physician in Springfield, MO. She completed a fellowship in integrative medicine and is a certified physician wellness coach. Dr. Cazieris an emergency physician in Huntsville, AL, and is a certified physician wellness coach. Dr. Morrisonis an emergency physician, the medical director of a freestanding ED in Springfield, MO, and clinical faculty at the Kansas City University College of Medicine. She has additional training in integrative medicine and wellness coaching. Together they own The Whole Physician, a company dedicated to optimizing physician well-being (www.thewholephysician.com). Follow them on Facebook or Instagram (TheWholePhysician) and on Twitter@WholePhysician.