Arrival fallacy or why we think happiness is always around the corner. It will not come to us after that promotion, marriage, or child is born; if it does, it will only be temporary.
When I get that promotion, I’ll finally be happy.
Or when I marry her. When I have a child. Win that deal. Be the number one in school. Win the championship. Move to that new city.
We tend to condition our happiness and fulfilment to some event in the future. We tell ourselves we are not happy yet, but we’ll be when this event finally happens.
We prepare, plan, wait and fight for it, and when it finally happens, we realise that eternal happiness and bliss haven’t arrived yet. It is as elusive as ever.
This is what behavioural scientist Tal Ben Shahar aptly called the arrival fallacy, which is the belief that if we achieve a goal or arrive at a destination sometime in the future, we will be happy and contented.
Happiness is always arriving, but it never seems to arrive. It’s always in the future.
The Hedonic adaptation, or why reaching goals won’t make you happy
Psychologists have demonstrated that people rapidly assimilate their highs and downs. We settle into our baseline happiness level immediately after something that makes us happy or sad. This is what they call Hedonic adaptation.
It is also known as the Hedonic treadmill because if you pursue happiness by adding positive experiences, you will work hard for those experiences, like on a treadmill, but your overall happiness won’t increase by much. Your body adapts to what you get, then goes back to normal.
It’s like when you receive a pay rise. The first month, you feel happy about it. The second paycheck may still be nice, but by the third one, you will have gotten used to it and will be thinking about the long time you will need to wait for the subsequent rise.
If you link your happiness to achieving your next goal, be it at work, romantic life or any other area of your life, Hedonic adaptation will make sure that when you reach it, you will quickly get used to it and it won’t add much to your overall happiness.
Nobody said being human was easy.
Goals still matter
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have goals and objectives in life. Goals still matter.
They may not add to your overall happiness when you achieve them, but goals have an essential role in your life. It is difficult to achieve much without goals.
Goals help us aim for what we want to achieve and measure our progress. They set us on the right track and let us know when we have arrived at the destination. The happiness or satisfaction we will feel when we get there may be short-lived, but it is still there.
Having a goal to strive for gives us purpose and direction. Aiming for the goal can actually bring us more happiness than reaching the goal itself, even if we often don’t notice this.
Enjoy the process, enjoy the journey
You will live a happier life if you stop fixing your happiness in some future event and enjoy the process of getting there.
Enjoy the journey, not the destination.
As James Clear said in his best-selling book Atomic Habits, “You do not raise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
You may have very lofty goals, but if you don’t have the right systems in place, you will never reach them.
The process, system or journey, call it as you wish, but that’s what really matters. I will go a step further and say that not only should you focus more on the process than on your objectives, you should also try to enjoy it more.
The moment you stop obsessing with your goals and start enjoying the journey to get there, a happier state of being will come to you.
For that, practising mindfulness or meditation helps. As many meditation gurus know, your life isn’t happening in the past or the future, but only in your present, so stop regretting the past and being anxious about the future, and start enjoying the present more.
This includes enjoying the little quirks of the journey or the process that will get you to your goals.
Another thing you can do to enjoy more the process is to practice gratitude. Be more grateful for the wonderful things life puts in front of you. I’m sure plenty of them already exist, but you just ignore them.
Stop obsessing over that big promotion or buying that big house, and be more grateful for life’s little pleasures.
The secret to happiness is…
There is no secret recipe to happiness. Happiness is not and will never be a permanent state. Sometimes, we will feel happier than others, but sadness, pain and suffering are also part of life and will always be.
Still, it helps to get some things clear. Happiness is like love; the more you seek it, the more elusive it is. Happiness usually only happens when you stop actively looking for it.
Happiness doesn’t reside in achieving goals and objectives. It won’t come sometime in the future.
People with a positive mindset are likelier to be happy. Also, people with meaningful relationships who spend time with people they love and like will live happier lives. Lastly, one of the secrets of happiness resides in wanting and needing less, not more.
As Seneca said, “It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.”
There is no secret recipe to happiness, but if there were one, it would at least have these three ingredients: a positive outlook, meaningful relationships, and wanting little.
Life is more like music than a journey
He said we often thought life was like a journey but that it was more like music. Westerners are used to reducing the time between A and B when travelling, so the trip is no longer about enjoying the journey but about reaching our destination, the sooner, the better.
If we take life as such a journey, we are entirely missing the point. For Watts, life is more like music. It is playful, and its whole point is to enjoy it from beginning to end. When listening to music, we are not waiting for it to be finished (unless the song is terrible); we want to enjoy it while it lasts, all of it.
Watts reminds us that in our Western education system, we go from 1st to 2nd grade, from primary to secondary school, then to university, then to the job market, and then we go after the next promotion. Our achievements are always somewhere in the future, and before we realise we reach our retirement age, we are sick and tired, and life has passed before us without us noticing and enjoying it.
The arrival fallacy is thrust upon us through our education and work systems.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Stop waiting for the next big thing to happen, and enjoy the moment you are in. After all, life is only lived and enjoyed in the present.