If you’re anything like us, you’ve lived your life looking to the future. You look forward to the prize, the achievement, even the acknowledgments. (Wait, what’s that?) You’re counting down the days to the end of a series of shifts. You imagine yourself on vacation and how awesome it’s going to be.
You are thrilled when these things happen! Your brain’s reward centers light up. There’s no dopamine like the dopamine that comes out of the hospital for the holidays, is there? But that only lasts for a short time, leaving us deflated.
How many of us have thought, “If I can just get into medical school, I’ll be happy” and “Once I finish medical school, I’ll be happy”, replacing it with: ” When I will date , I will 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 will be so happy.” What’s going on? Why is there always one more obstacle to having lasting happiness?
The arrival error is a term coined by Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, a Harvard-trained positive psychologist. He described it as “the illusion that once we get there, once we reach our goal or reach our destination, we will achieve 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 last. All his hard work was 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” and unhappy Hollywood stars. Many start out dissatisfied with life, but think, “It’s okay because once it happens, it’ll fix everything.” This is not the case. Fame and success give fleeting joy, but when misfortune returns, it is accompanied by despair because fame has not settled anything emotionally.
Achievement or destination is not synonymous with long-term happiness. Temporary happiness, yes, but not lasting. It’s a tough pill to swallow for many of us who have strived and worked so hard to get where we are. Haven’t we been told all our lives that we just have to work hard to have a happy life? Isn’t that 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 be happy?
We should all know that’s not how it works. We’ve all worked hard, so we should be the happiest people on the planet, right? But a quick look around suggests that the theory doesn’t hold water.
Moments of growth
Doctors frequently overwork themselves at the expense of activities that replenish them: relationships, sleep, creative hobbies, exercise, etc. The singular focus of work can throw us off balance without intentional efforts in these areas.
Worse still, sometimes our “happiness” at having achieved a goal is not happiness at all. It is a relief from the relentless pressure and heavy burden we carry. Relief is a positive emotion, but it is temporary. It is transiently experienced with the release of a bad feeling.
Are we supposed to stop looking for goals? No. As humans, we need meaning and purpose. There’s another term that Dr. Ben-Shahar coined for those who live only for momentary pleasure: the floating moment fallacy. It’s the false belief that happiness can be sustained by continued instant gratification detached from a future goal.
It is not the pursuit of objectives that is the problem. In fact, we need purpose and meaningful aspirations. This is just a trap when achieving goals is the prerequisite for reward.
What are we doing? Dr Ben-Shahar said, “To achieve lasting happiness, we must enjoy the journey on our way to a destination we deem valuable. Happiness does not consist in reaching the top of the mountain nor in climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing to the top.
The most important thing is to find happiness along the way to a worthy goal. Do not wait. Only a brief part of your life is spent at the top. Try to take advantage of times of growth to become a more successful version of yourself, no matter what success means to you. Don’t let relationships suffer at the cost of travel. According to Dr. Ben-Shahar, “The number one predictor of happiness is the quality time we spend with people who are dear to us and who care about us. In other words, relationships.
Dr. Ben-Shahar recommends creating multiple simultaneous goals in and out of your work life. Goals can be something like spending more quality time with loved ones or pursuing a creative hobby. High achievers tend to get dopamine kicks from checking things off their list, so put some quality time in with a loved one on the list. Put celebrating progress on your list. Whatever you do, try to erase “I’ll be happiest when [x] comes” 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 an Integrative Medicine Fellowship 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, medical director of a free-standing emergency department in Springfield, MO, and clinical professor at 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 the well-being of physicians (www.thewholephysician.com). Follow them on Facebook or Instagram (TheWholePhysician) and on Twitter@WholePhysician.