Mind & Body

Here's Why You're Happier Before Achieving a Goal Than You Are After

Whether it's graduating from college, giving birth, or finally reaching that number on the scale, we've all felt that surprising letdown after achieving a goal we've been working toward. This is all you've wanted for months, maybe years, and now you have it. Why do you feel so ... deflated? This perfectly normal sensation comes down to the way motivation works in the brain. Luckily, there are ways to cope.

All I Really Want

You've probably heard of dopamine as the brain's "reward chemical," the one that spikes when you eat chocolate or fall in love. For decades, researchers have said that's the case: you see chocolate, you eat the chocolate, and the amazing taste of the chocolate leads to a pleasurable burst of dopamine. But new science is starting to pick apart dopamine's true role in the brain. It turns out that role isn't in reward itself, but in the motivation to pursue a reward: you see chocolate, dopamine urges you to eat the chocolate, and the chocolate tastes amazing.

Really, dopamine is more complex than one descriptor. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical signal that passes information from one brain cell to the next. What dopamine does to you depends on where it is in your brain, what neurons are involved, and what receptors receive its signal. At various areas of the brain, dopamine can regulate movement, hormone levels, and even some organ functions. But it's safe to say that every time you've heard dopamine mentioned, it was probably in reference to the reward pathway known as the mesolimbic dopamine system. That's your brain's reward superhighway, and it's been helping your ancestors survive for millennia.

It makes sense that researchers would associate dopamine in this area with reward; its levels are heightened when people do drugs, gamble, listen to music, have sex, or eat delicious food. But studies also show heightened dopamine levels in situations you wouldn't consider all that rewarding: war veterans experiencing PTSD flashbacks, for example, or rats that have recently lost a fight. If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty, dopamine's role in this reward pathway really comes down to what's known as "incentive salience" — that is, identifying incentives (whether that's the taste of chocolate or a feeling of safety) and making us want them.

Congratulations, Now Keep Going

So what does all of this have to do with that deflated feeling after you've achieved a big goal? While you're striving and striving to reach the finish line, your reward pathway is juiced up with dopamine helping to push you further. You dream about the goal, you imagine what life will be like when you finally get it. It's a long process. Once you achieve the goal, there's a good feeling, sure — but it's fleeting.

In his book "The Happiness Hypothesis," Jonathan Haidt explains psychologist Richard Davidson's two types of "positive affect" (good feelings, basically). There's "pre-goal attainment positive affect," which you know as that good feeling you get while you're going after a goal. Then there's "post-goal attainment positive affect." Haidt explains, "You experience this latter feeling as contentment, as a short-lived feeling of release ... after a goal has been achieved."

In other words, it truly is about the journey, not the destination. The most obvious way to avoid the post-goal crash is to really cherish the feeling of going after it beforehand, and do everything you can to celebrate your achievement after. Just knowing this is how your brain works is a big step: If you understand that achieving your goal won't come with a sublime feeling of bliss, you might not be so disappointed when you get it done. 

But a not-so-obvious way to keep from feeling like a popped balloon is to keep setting goals, even if they're a lot smaller than the one you're about to achieve. Running your first marathon? Plan a recovery run with a friend a week or two afterward so you have something to look forward to. Graduating from college? Plan a camping trip to celebrate. Don't make the goals too lofty — you don't want to burn yourself out. But having something small to strive for when the lights go down could help avoid that post-goal crash.

For more, check out "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom" by Jonathan Haidt. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Jonathan Haidt: Nothing Is Good or Bad

Written by Ashley Hamer March 8, 2018

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