The arrival fallacy: why we should decouple our happiness from our goals

Reading time: 7 minutes

“When I achieve this goal, then I will be happy.” If you’ve ever experienced such a when/then thought pattern, you’re not alone. Whether you’re aiming to run a marathon, get a promotion at work or buy your first house, having a goal in mind can increase your motivation. However, we often mistakenly believe that achieving our goals will make us happy. That tendency is called the arrival fallacy.

It usually goes like this: upon meeting a goal, you will initially feel delighted. But, very quickly, you find yourself back at your usual level of happiness, or even facing a sense of emptiness. The disappointment of not experiencing the expected happiness, or only experiencing it briefly, can subsequently impact your well-being. Instead of falling prey to the arrival fallacy, it’s crucial to reframe your goals so you can avoid an anti-climax.

Arrival Fallacy - Illustration

The short-lived nature of goal-based happiness

The arrival fallacy was first coined by Harvard-trained psychologist Dr Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier: Can You Learn to Be Happy?

As a young elite squash player, Ben-Shahar had a recurring belief that if he could win a match or a tournament, he would experience happiness afterwards. However, though he would indeed feel happy upon winning, this feeling was short-lived. Once the euphoria faded, he found himself faced with stress, pressure, and a feeling of emptiness. 

Rather than creating the long-lasting happiness or contentment he expected, accomplishing one goal simply led to a new sporting target being uncovered. Once a target had been hit, new goals appeared on the horizon. His list of goals was never fully completed.

Dr Maya Pilin further explored our ability to predict our future emotions. Pilin reported that our affective forecasting, or our ability to imagine how something will make us feel, is often inaccurate. This systematic inaccuracy is concerning, because being able to predict how we will feel is essential to our decision-making process.

So why are we so bad at predicting our happiness levels? Psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert found that predictions about how a future event might make us feel are often flawed because of the impact bias. The impact bias leads to an overestimation of the duration and intensity of the positive emotions you may feel as a result of an event. We overestimate the positive impact the accomplishment of a goal will have, and we underestimate how other events or feelings may influence the way we feel.

Let’s say that after many years of work, you finally get your dream role at work. Sure, you’ll be happy for a short while. But, despite reaching your goal, more senior career ambitions will appear, and you’ll assume that achieving these will lead to more happiness. In addition, happiness cannot hinge on one facet of your life. Other aspects including your health, relationships and finances will affect your mood as well.

The impact of the arrival fallacy

We have established that we fall prey to the arrival fallacy when we believe that achieving our goals will make us happy. And that’s not without consequences: the arrival fallacy affects us in many ways by impacting future decision-making and emotional well-being.

For instance, if the initial euphoria of completing a marathon disappears after two days and leaves you feeling empty, you may conclude that striving to excel is not worth the hardship. Alternatively, you may immediately start exploring new challenges to try to reach that short-lived peak of happiness again, without fully considering potential consequences.

Dr Adam Dorr explains that the disappointment associated with the arrival fallacy stems from seeing “possible futures as static objects (a destination or goal) instead of as snapshots of an inherently dynamic process.”

Happiness is not a static destination that can be reached after achieving a goal. While achieving a goal may give you a short-term boost, your levels of happiness will continue to rise and fall in accordance with the many internal and external events you experience.

Even highly-educated people fall prey to the arrival fallacy. A study found that assistant professors commonly made the prediction that receiving tenure would strongly influence their long-term happiness. However, when this prediction of happiness was later checked, it was found that there was no significant difference in happiness levels between those who had been and those who had not been awarded tenure.

Similarly, many individuals believe that life would be better or more enjoyable following a big lottery win. However, Dr Philip Brickman and colleagues found that major lottery winners were not any happier than control subjects who lived close by.

Worse, lottery winners took “significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events”, suggesting that the winners’ emotional well-being may have been negatively impacted following the arrival of their wealth — a common occurrence when we tie our happiness to the achievement of a goal.

How to manage the arrival fallacy

While achieving a goal may lead to an initial burst of endorphins, the following slump may either cause disappointment that the effort you put in has not paid off in the way you anticipated, or a frenzy to move onto a newer, bigger, more exciting goal.

You may think that goal-setting is flawed and that you may as well live life without setting any goals, but that would not be the best strategy. Although completing a goal may lead to the arrival fallacy, Dr Tal Ben-Shahar maintains that having objectives is essential to personal growth.

The trick is to repackage your motivation to change your perspective, making the process of achieving your goals as important as the result, thus helping to avoid an anti-climax upon crossing the finish line. Here are three strategies to help you avoid the arrival fallacy:

  1. Avoid when/then happiness projections. If you find yourself saying “I will be happy when I [move abroad, have a baby, receive tenure]”, you are putting unrealistic pressure on the goal to contribute to your long-term mental well-being. Assigning intense expectations to the completion of a goal may leave you feeling disappointed. Rather than using when/then projections, practice mindfulness and take note of what currently makes you happy. Rather than hoping for happiness upon reaching your goal, proactively look at the positives in your life right now. This exercise can be done through journaling or meditation.
  2. Focus on the journey, not the outcome. On your way to achieving a goal, enjoy the process so that you are not only hoping for joy at the finishing point, but instead experiencing it at each step of the process. Give yourself the space to experience the joy of learning, connecting with experts in your field, building a new feature, giving a great presentation, finding a solution to a complex problem. Learn how to learn, think about thinking, and develop skills such as creativity and decision-making. This way, whatever the outcome, the journey will have been worth the work.
  3. Celebrate the micro-wins. Minor milestones can act as catalysts for bigger tasks. A micro-win might include getting a call scheduled with a new client or running one mile for the first time without stopping. Focusing on smaller wins will make you feel more productive and happier, even though you have not yet reached your long-term goal. Celebrating the micro-wins puts less pressure on the achievement of the main goal, allowing you to experience sustainable happiness instead of short-lived bursts of joy.

Setting goals does help propel you forwards, but relying on them for your happiness can make you fall prey to the arrival fallacy, which will negatively impact your well-being and decision-making processes. Rather than relying on unrealistic when/then projections, celebrate the aspects of your life that already bring you happiness, and enjoy the ongoing process of learning and personal growth.

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