Achieving Goals Won’t Bring You Happiness: Here’s 4 Things That Will

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Posted By Alex Perez - Mental Health Writer, B.A.

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?

I’ll be happy when I get that promotion.

I’ll be happy when I lose 50 pounds.

I’ll be happy when I’m making six figures per year.

Most of us tend to believe that our happiness is a byproduct of achieving the lofty goals we have. Yet even when we achieve these goals, the feeling of accomplishment never seems to last.

We receive a jolt of happiness for a few days, or maybe even a few weeks. But eventually, that initial high wears off and we drop back down to baseline. And in some cases, we feel even more empty and broken than before

Why doesn’t setting goals and achieving them give us the long-lasting happiness that we desperately crave? And more importantly, what can do we about it?

In this article, we’ll dive into both of those questions in great detail.

Why Happiness Doesn’t Last


Recently, I was reading a great article by A.C. Shilton, who is a writer for The New York Times.

In the article, she talks about her experience with fleeting happiness coming off one of the biggest stories of her career:

“A little over a year ago, I drove home from the airport with the windows down and the radio on full blast after filming the last scenes for the Netflix docu-series “The Innocent Man.” I was so proud of the work I’d done investigating two wrongful murder convictions in a small city in Oklahoma in the 1980s. This was work that mattered, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. A few days later, I sat in my truck and cried. An empty work schedule yawned before me, and I was sure that my most meaningful achievement was in my rearview mirror.”

Shilton’s experience is one that many of you may resonate with. If you’ve experienced the emotional high of achieving a particularly difficult goal, you’ve also likely experienced the inevitable crash in motivation and joy that comes after.

Why is it that this state of happiness doesn’t last? After all, we’ve achieved a massively important personal goal, shouldn’t we now feel better long-term?

Well unfortunately, that’s not how the brain works. And there’s actually a name for the psychological mechanism responsible for the rise and crash effect that occurs when we achieve goals.

This neurological mechanism is called hedonic adaptation, and that’s what we’ll discuss next.

Hedonic Adaptation & Happiness


As humans, we are remarkably proficient at adapting to change, which is an essential component to our survival. If our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t develop the ability to quickly adapt to new surroundings, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t exist right now.

When it comes to happiness though, this trait is not our friend. When we buy a new car, make new friends, or get a huge raise, our brain adapts to these new circumstances fairly quickly.

This is essentially the defining characteristic of hedonic adaptation, which refers to our tendency to regress to a set baseline level of happiness after a positive life event.

If you buy your dream house, you’re going to feel an initial wave of happiness. For the first couple of weeks, you’ll likely walk around proudly and marvel at the size of your new closet, or the beautiful backyard patio that you now have.

Eventually though, those feelings recede as these new changes simply become a normal part of your everyday life. After a few weeks, or even a few days, your happiness will recede back to baseline levels and you’ll feel exactly the way you did before you purchased the house.

This rise and crash effect occurs with any worthwhile goal that we pursue, whether it’s building a successful business, losing weight, getting married, or buying a new car.

Once you attain the shiny object that you’re after, there will come a point where it’s no longer shiny to you.

Four Habits That Will Make You A Happier Person


Now you may be asking yourself, “If long-lasting increases in happiness don’t come from achieving goals, then where do they come from?”

Well, they come from engaging in habits that increase your baseline levels of happiness. And luckily, there’s an abundance of psychological research that outlines specific habits that have permanent, long-lasting impacts on our happiness levels.

Let’s talk about four of these habits right now.

Habit #1: Daily gratitude

Daily gratitude is one of the easiest ways to live a happier life. By taking a few minutes each day to write down 3-4 things that you’re grateful for, you’re actually rewiring your brain to develop a more positive mindset.

A fantastic article by Joshua Brown and Joel Wong analyzed the impact that daily gratitude had on the mental health of nearly 300 college students.

Their findings showed that people who practiced daily gratitude for three weeks reported a significant increase in their life satisfaction both four and twelve weeks after the study ended.

Several other studies like this have repeatedly come to the same conclusion — people who practice gratitude regularly are less anxious, less depressed, and enjoy higher life satisfaction.

Habit #2: Daily Meditation

Meditation is one of the most beneficial habits for increasing baseline levels of happiness.

One of the biggest benefits of meditation is that it helps people practice the relaxation response, which is responsible for that feeling of calmness we experience when our heart rate slows and our muscles loosen up.

The relaxation response suppresses the default mode network inside of our brain, which is responsible for overthinking, rumination, and worry.

In other words, the act of staying present via meditation gives us greater power over our emotions and can help suppress negative thought patterns that sabotage our mental state.

Habit #3: Cold Showers

If you’ve heard of cold showers before, you might think that they’re a fad. Well, the scientific research says otherwise.

If you’re not familiar with dopamine, it’s the neurochemical that’s responsible for motivation and drive. Anytime you engage in something that you find pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine, which boosts your motivation, mood, and overall energy levels.

One study looked at the impact of cold showers on dopamine levels in the brain. In the study, participants were exposed to cold water at a temperature of 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

Exposure to cold water led to a 250% increase in dopamine levels. Just to put that into perspective, that’s the same increase that ingesting cocaine produces.

The difference between the release of dopamine that comes from cocaine and cold showers comes down to timeframe.

Cocaine produces an intense spike in dopamine that lasts a few minutes before returning to baseline. Cold water exposure produces an intense spike in dopamine that lasts up to three hours before returning to baseline.

In short, cold water exposure produces a sustained release of dopamine that can keep you in a state of peak motivation for hours. You can leverage this state to knock out your hardest tasks in the morning that help you feel more satisfied at the end of each day.

Be sure to remember this information when you walk into the bathroom tomorrow morning.

Habit #4: Enjoy The Process, Not The Prize

Another tip for improving your baseline level of happiness is to put less emphasis on the specific goals you’re trying to achieve.

When you focus too much on outcomes, you’re tying your happiness to the destination instead of realizing that you can boost happiness naturally by enjoying the journey.

For example, let’s say that you set a goal to lose 50 pounds in six months. Over the course of six months, you walk every day, improve your diet, and reduce the amount of junk food you consume.

At the end of six months, you step on the scale and see that you’ve dropped 38 pounds. Did you achieve the goal? No, you were twelve pounds short.

However, what if your goal was to simply live a healthier lifestyle? Well, that’s an aim that you’ve definitely accomplished.

Not only did you lose weight, but you took control of your bad eating habits and finally made exercise a priority. In other words, you fundamentally changed the kind of person you are.

Enjoying the process is undoubtedly a cliche term, so here’s how you can make it actionable:

In moments where you find yourself taking positive action, try to reinforce the benefits of effort itself by saying things like: “I’m proud of myself for taking positive steps towards the person I want to become. If I do what I’m doing right now every single day, I’ll be a better version of myself even if I don’t reach the specific targets I’m after.”

If you do this consistently, you’ll start to find joy in the actual pursuit of your goals as opposed to the desired results that come after effort.

Final Thoughts


If you take anything away from this article, let it be this — accomplishing your goals isn’t the key to happiness.

You don’t achieve permanent increases in happiness through achievement. You achieve permanent increases in happiness by engaging in daily practices that raise your happiness baseline.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to achieve your goals. But it does mean that if you’re serious about living a happy life, you’ll read this article and immediately start focusing on ways to enjoy the process instead of the prize.

For some additional insight into the idea of happiness and its central components, check out this article that I wrote about the four keys to happiness.

Brief Sentence About Author:

My name is Justin and I’m a personal development blogger with a passion for providing actionable advice that helps people become the best version of themselves. The Enemy Of Average is where I share my best tips and tricks for improving productivity, building better habits, and living a more fulfilling life.

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