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