Hang­ing your hap­pi­ness on one goal does not nec­es­sar­ily lead to ful­fil­ment, says El­iz­a­beth Uviebi­nené

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Why ac­com­plish­ing that goal won’t make you hap­pier (and what will)

‘Chas­ing per­fec­tion is a slip­pery slope’

She’s had such an in­sanely suc­cess­ful year that it took many by sur­prise when singer Lizzo re­vealed to her 1.8m In­sta­gram fol­low­ers that she was ‘de­pressed’ and felt alone. Her vul­ner­a­bil­ity was a re­minder: even at the top of your game, you can ex­pe­ri­ence con­tra­dic­tory emo­tions and feel that you’re not good enough.

I think that it sur­prised peo­ple be­cause we’re led to be­lieve that achiev­ing our goals is the ticket to a more fulfilled life. It’s sup­posed to make us happy, right? Well, not al­ways.

Months ear­lier, I had been in a sim­i­lar slump. Fresh off a tour af­ter pub­lish­ing my first book with my best friend, as the ex­cite­ment of that mile­stone wore off, a sense of dis­il­lu­sion­ment crept in. ‘What is next for you? You are just killing it!’ a friend said to me over din­ner. I laughed it off ner­vously. On the train home, I asked my­self the same ques­tion, ‘What now?’

It’s nat­u­ral to feel a low af­ter a high, but for years, my hap­pi­ness was con­tin­gent on achiev­ing one goal: writ­ing a book. And when I didn’t feel a eu­phoric sense of ful­fil­ment and hap­pi­ness af­ter tick­ing that box, I felt lost.

This feel­ing made sense when I read about what Har­vard lec­turer Dr Tal Ben-sha­har calls ‘ar­rival fal­lacy’, the ‘il­lu­sion that once we make it, once we at­tain our goal or reach our des­ti­na­tion, we will reach last­ing hap­pi­ness’.

Ever since I can re­mem­ber, my friends and I have been ob­sessed with our fu­ture selves and the imag­ined hap­pi­ness lurk­ing just around the corner, if only we could smash our goals. The prob­lem with this way of think­ing is that when you are mes­merised by the hap­pi­ness you will one day in­evitably ob­tain, it’s all too easy to de­fer your joy un­til later. For me, that meant sac­ri­fic­ing daily op­por­tu­ni­ties for hap­pi­ness in or­der to make my goal a real­ity: work­ing around the clock on week­ends, be­ing a flaky friend, avoid­ing so­cial events and bury­ing my­self in my writ­ing. Be­cause, if I could just get to the fin­ish line, then things would be great!

I don’t think I’m alone. Many of us con­vince our­selves that hap­pi­ness lies just be­yond the fin­ish line of [insert your goal here]. Ev­ery­thing from grad­u­at­ing or achiev­ing a pro­mo­tion to hav­ing a baby, find­ing a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship, mov­ing to a new home or get­ting a big job. We tell our­selves we’ll be happy if and when we hit a par­tic­u­lar mile­stone. Then we lean into the next il­lu­sion, ea­gerly an­tic­i­pat­ing that one mo­ment; that next hope – and the cy­cle be­gins again.

Of course, the ‘ar­rival’ rarely lives up to the hype, which is why it’s a fal­lacy. Fix­at­ing on fu­ture out­comes and chas­ing per­fec­tion is a slip­pery slope to feel­ings of de­spair. I re­mem­ber be­ing di­ag­nosed by my GP with a se­vere vi­ta­min D de­fi­ciency be­cause I wasn’t be­ing ex­posed to ap­pro­pri­ate lev­els of di­rect sun­light. I never left the house be­cause, you guessed it, I was work­ing on my ‘goal’.

I like hav­ing goals; it gives me hope. But it was my relentless pur­suit of one it’ll-fix-ev­ery­thing goal that was caus­ing me harm. I was so con­sumed by its ‘ar­rival’, that I lost fo­cus on the now. In idol­is­ing a fu­ture life, in which I would feel ac­com­plished and com­plete, I had put pre­cious parts of my ac­tual life on pause.

What I’ve come to re­alise is this: there is no fin­ish line. Our goals are meant to com­ple­ment the lives we have now. They may un­lock new doors with new op­por­tu­ni­ties, but they will not mag­i­cally trans­form us into 2.0 ver­sions of our­selves. Which is why, in the pur­suit of them, we must not ne­glect the peo­ple and parts of our lives that ac­tu­ally re­plen­ish us and make us whole. The parts of life that are hap­pen­ing right in front of us. Today.

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