Mastering Self-Control

Take the reins! Here's what behavioral science tells us about breaking bad habits, kickstarting new ones, and recharging your willpower.

How Desire Fools Us: The Benefits and Dangers of The Chase

Desire brings us joy. Learn to harness its benefits while avoiding its dangers.

Why do we love to chase? What is so intriguingly attractive about hard-to-get partners, Black Friday sales, and the very latest iPhone? Whether it's for a trophy, a promotion, a slice at a popular pizza parlor, or Twitter followers, desire simply gets us all fired up.

Anticipatory Joy

A cat will chase a toy mouse because a good chase activates its brain's reward system. The same is true for us. We experience anticipatory joy. In other words, anticipation of a desired outcome makes us feel good. Research by Stanford University's Brian Knutson shows that just looking at the object of our desire activates neural signals associated with the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter released during reward signaling) in the brain. Knutson's research suggests that we don't just derive happiness from attaining, receiving, or consuming the object of our desires, we also do so from anticipating it i.e. it's not just eating the cake that makes us happy but also staring at it through the storefront. Think of anticipating a fantastic vacation, or a reunion with a friend you haven't seen in a long time, or a meal at your favorite restaurant. This may be the reason why people go window-shopping, gamble, test-drive ferarris or go to strip clubs. Although they can't possess the object of their desire, they experience the titillating state of anticipatory joy. 

Loving The Chase Helps us Survive & Thrive 

In his book Authentic Happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman describes a telling story of a pet iguana who refused to eat and was slowly starving to death until, one day, he saw his owner eating a sandwich. That's when the iguana pounced on the plate with the sandwich. The iguana would rather starve to death than not experience the pleasure of chasing, hunting and capturing the food. This anticipatory joy—prevalent in both animals and humans—probably helped us survive (pursuit of food sources) and ensured our reproduction as a species (pursuit of sexual partners). Anticipatory joy also helps us complete more complex and challenging goals by providing us with the determination, excitement, and grit needed to complete marathons, college or graduate school degrees, or fluency in a foreign language. We enjoy chasing our dreams and also value things more if we have worked for them.

However, our love of a good chase carries with it some dangers to be aware of. Can we avoid the pitfalls of chasing while still harnessing the benefits of anticipatory joy? You bet! Here's how:

HOW TO AVOID THE DANGERS

1) Runnin' for Nothin'

Oftentimes, the things we chase don't bring us what we want. Dan Gilbert at Harvard has shown that we are terrible at predicting what will or will not make us happy and we often overestimate the amount of happiness something will bring us. Just like a cat who will chase its toy but lose interest as soon as it catches the toy, we sometimes do too.When we finally get what we want—whether it's winning the lottery, receiving the promotion, or finding the perfect job—we often find that we are not as happy as we thought we would be. Some people love to seduce but as soon as their romantic partner is smitten, they lose interest; others purchase a dream car, and shortly thereafter want to trade it in or regret not having chosen a different model. Our anticipatory joy itself deceives us. We falling prey to habituation or the negativity bias (described in this post).

2) Risking Health and Happiness

When we don't find the joy we were expecting, we move on to the next chase…sometimes ad infinitum. Many will go from relationship to relationship, car to car, apartment to apartment and job to job. The chase is like that of a dehydrated man running after a fata morgana - the mirage of an oasis in the desert. In some cases, the chase runs our lives. Research by Michael Treadway has shown that people who are more motivated to work hard also release greater amounts of dopamine in reward areas of the brain. Many overachieving Ivy Leaguers and CEO's are on the treadmill of workaholism which is just another chase in disguise. Granted, this kind of chase may pay off and result in external rewards such as validation, fame, power or money. However, it also often comes at a high cost: exhaustion, divorce, and health problems. Others succumb retail therapy or get addicted to gambling. Consumed with the chase, they miss out on our life, on being in the present moment with loved ones, on savoring what they already have.

3) Being Taken for a Ride 

Marketers play on our anticipatory joy by telling us that we will be happier if we buy or consume certain products. Sales, discounts and special offers are nothing but a play on anticipatory joy. So are casinos and horse-races. Driven by anticipatory joy (that can turn into addiction), recreational drug users often describe their addiction as a constant chase after that elusive first high. 

HOW TO HARNESS THE BENEFITS

Chasing has its benefits that we can harness with awareness. For example, it can also help us achieve our professional and personal goals. Positive Psychologists agree that there are benefits to having goals, especially when it comes to goals with meaning. A life of meaning is a life well lived. So how can we work with the positive effects of loving a good chase (the willingness to work hard, for example), without falling prey to its possible dangers?

1. Use Anticipatory Joy as a Tool 

Be aware of your brain's love of a chase, and use it as a tool to foster the enthusiasm and energy you need to complete your goals. Rev up your anticipatory joy by looking forward to your end result, whether it is recognition or payment or even the satisfaction of crossing it off of your to-do list. Whatever the source of your anticipatory joy, use it as a motivator but also remember to stay realistic about the fact that the end goal may not bring you the unbounded pleasure you imagine.

2. Maintain Balance and Keep it Real

Learn to maintain a balance. If your anticipatory gets you over-excited, learn to calm yourself down (try breathing exercises, like the ones I describe in this post or meditation whose impact I describe in this post), write in your diary and reason with yourself as you would with a friend, or speak to others who have gone through the experiences you are about to have and can help you realistically assess the amount of joy you will derive from them. 

3. Remember What the Research Says about True Happiness 

Remember that happiness researchers agree that the key to happiness—after having adequate food and shelter—lies in personal relationships and social connection (as I've described at length in this post  this post  and this post). Most importantly, recent research shows that some of the deepest feelings of fulfillment don't actually come from buying, purchasing, acquiring or succeeding at all, but that they actually come from giving (see this post).

4. Contemplate that the Source of Joy May Be Inside You

Many philosophies entertain the intriguing idea that the secret to happiness lies with in us. If you remember anything from this post, take this last question with you: If you yourself are activating your brain's own reward circuits by thinking of or seeing your desired object (before you even have a chance to possess it), then where is the real source of joy? Is the key to reward or happiness really in that object, or is it in fact inside of you? 

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Emma is the founder of Fulfillment Daily, science-based news for a happier life.

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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

Photo credit: lovesujeiry.com

Mastering Self-Control