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Arrival Fallacy: How to be Happier

Nov 16, 2021

Civil rights icon Mahatma Gandhi once said that true satisfaction is found in our sustained efforts to attain a goal and not in the actual goal attainment.

In other words, happiness is a journey. Happiness is never a destination.

Human nature is a strange thing. A famous writer once said that humans inherently deny what their hearts most desire.

And all the while, people pretend that they are happy when they are clearly not or still searching for happiness.

Amazingly, many people become appreciably less happy after doing or attaining something they previously believed they wanted.

It is a phenomenon known as the “arrival fallacy.” The best way to initially explain the arrival fallacy is to describe it in action.

In August 2021, over 4.3 million Americans abruptly quit their jobs. Many quit their jobs over dissatisfaction with low pay, coronavirus fears, and a desire to pursue their ambitions. A lot of Americans quit their jobs to start new companies or other endeavors.

And many Americans felt happiness quitting a job that they hated. 

The act of quitting itself may have caused dopamine spikes of happiness in the brain.

Americans have been quitting their jobs in masses since the start of 2021. The situation is called “The Great Resignation.” The year 2020 was the last time, so many Americans quit their jobs in large numbers.

However, The Great Resignation is having an effect called “Boomerang Employees.” Over 15% of boomerang employees have returned to a job they previously left. And over 40% of employers will readily re-hire employees who amicably quit before.

Many people think that once they accomplish something they truly desire, they will experience lasting happiness. However, they usually only attain temporary happiness followed by emotionally cratering sadness.

People with arrival fallacy think they have found happiness like it is the Holy Grail, only to realize that they are holding a cup and must upgrade their purpose in life.

Now imagine what arrival fallacy feels like for doctors, a vital profession.

Over 54% of doctors report feeling burned out. Another 32% report feeling excessively fatigued when performing their duties.

Being a doctor is considered a prodigious career choice. It takes a lot of financial and time sacrifice to become a doctor. Still, attaining a doctorate may feel like an arrival fallacy for many doctors after applying their skills.

How can you cope with the arrival fallacy?

But firstly, what is the arrival fallacy?

Doctors, like any human being, struggle with depression, professional dissatisfaction, and vocational fatigue. Contact Deanna Larson M. D., physician life coach, for a consultation.

Related: Gratitude: How Gratitude Makes You Happier 

What is Arrival Fallacy?

The arrival fallacy is the emotional and intellectual illusion of long-term happiness after achieving a long-sought goal, only for that happiness to incrementally fade away in empty waves of shallow hopelessness shortly after reaching the goal.

The term “arrival fallacy” was created by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard-trained expert on positive psychology. As Dr. Ben-Shahar explains, the arrival fallacy is the illusion of reaching a destination or goal and realizing that the achievement doesn’t make you as happy as you thought it would.

People think achieving the goal will make them happy instead of the effort-driven progression towards the goal. And people with the arrival fallacy may be masking unhappiness that worsens after the goal is achieved.

Dr. Ben-Shahar says that while most people can predict what might may them happy, they usually misjudge the preconceived intensity and overall duration of said happiness.

Dr. Ben-Shahar reasons that people mistakenly confuse happiness with reaching an achievement. But as we discussed previously, happiness is a lifelong journey. We feel happiness through our efforts in life, family, and the people important in our lives.

However, some goals are more challenging to achieve than others. 

And it’s understandable, if not unwittingly misguided, for people to connote the anticipation of reaching a long-sought goal with happiness.

Think about the arrival fallacy of becoming a doctor.

The Arrival Fallacy of Becoming a Doctor

It isn’t easy to become a doctor. It can take anywhere between a decade to 14 years for a doctor to officially gain their title. 

So, that means young medical students spend years thinking that becoming medical residents will make them happy.

Or it means that medical residents can spend years believing becoming a doctor will make them happy. And yet, over 54% of doctors feel burned out in their profession. And another 32% experience chronic vocational fatigue.

Over 30% of doctors continually grapple with severe depression.

The arrival fallacy or predetermined expectations of becoming a doctor may not conform with the reality for many. Doctors work long hours, are always expected to perform miracles, and must be right all of the time.

And yet, hundreds of patients die in hospitals. There are many diseases and ailments that will not be cured anytime soon. And doctors have to witness patients suffering all of the time. 

And that reality may cause an emotional weight not commensurate with the happiness of officially obtaining a doctorate.

So, what can be done about the arrival fallacy?

Is Arrival Fallacy Affecting Your Happiness?

If achieving a long-sought goal has made you deeply unhappy, or worse, wondering what you will do next to outdo the previous goal, then the arrival fallacy could be affecting your happiness.

How do you Fight the Arrival Fallacy?

There are a few ways that you can fight against the arrival fallacy. 

Most of them consist of changing your mindset about the preconceived intensity or duration of happiness that you think achieving a goal will make you feel.

Get out of the habit of making unrealistic expectations of how reaching a goal may make you feel. Setting up such unrealistic expectations will only emotionally backfire when long-sought goals are achieved.

Stop saying “I’ll be so happy when…” in anticipation of a goal.

Make practical goals and enjoy the efforts undertaken to reach those goals instead of the goals themselves. 

Happiness is achieved during crucial moments in the journey of life. 

Ask yourself – what will you do after achieving a goal you think will make you happy forever?

Do Accomplishments Make you Happy?

There is nothing wrong with feeling happy after accomplishing a goal. The only problem is believing that reaching the accomplishment will automatically result in intense and long-lasting happiness.

Are Goal-Oriented People Happier?

Only about 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions go on to achieve them. Isn’t that strange? Unhappiness can be the result of giving up on a goal or intensely focusing on one.

Remember that happiness is a life journey, not a destination.

Whether a goal makes you happier is a subjective question. What is more likely you make you happy is the effort and actions to achieve the goal rather than the goal itself.

Setting new goals to achieve may make you happier than achieving one or two.

What Does Accomplishment Feel Like?

You have every right to feel happy for accomplishing a long-sought goal. 

However, having predetermined expectations of how intense your happiness will be or how long it will last could end in disappointment and depression.

Does Hard Work Make you Happy?

Working hard on something you want to accomplish will make you happy as long as you temper your emotional expectations.

Keep in mind that a study suggests you control 50% of the happiness you feel at any time.

Are you a physician struggling with burnout, emotional fatigue, or depression? Contact Deanna Larson M. D., physician life coach, today for a consultation.

Related: People Pleasing: How Do I Stop Putting Myself Last?

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