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What If You Achieved Your Wildest Dreams But Felt Miserable?

A conversation with an Olympic athlete, filmmaker, actor, and writer.

Sergey Tinyakov/Shutterstock
Despite what our achievement-oriented society tells us, professional successes do not equal personal contentment.
Source: Sergey Tinyakov/Shutterstock

Imagine that through diligent planning, a Herculean amount of work, and a sprinkle of luck, you achieved your wildest dreams. How long would you bask in the warm glow of your accomplishments? A lifetime? A year? A day?

To address this question, I turned to a true super-achiever: Alexi Pappas. In just her twenties alone, Pappas achieved more than most could dream of in a lifetime. She competed at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics and set the Greek national record for the 10K event. Pappas also co-wrote, co-directed, and served as the lead actress of Tracktown, a coming-of-age sports film that was later picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films, Orion Pictures, and Sony International. She then co-wrote and starred opposite of Nick Kroll in her following feature film, Olympic Dreams, distributed by IFC Films.

She is also an outstanding essayist, having published paradigm-challenging pieces in The Atlantic and The New York Times. Her most recent accomplishment is the publication of her first book, Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas, which has received rave reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, among others.

Pappas is a veritable Renaissance woman with her ability to weave her diverse expertise into a tight strand. And despite her many laurels, she does not shy away from pinpointing the source of her initial desire to succeed: her mother's suicide. The event convinced her childhood self that she hadn't mattered enough for her mother to stay. She railed against her mother's absence by striving to matter as much as possible.

But shortly after achieving her greatest dreams—competing in the Olympics—Pappas fell into a dizzying spiral of depression and realized that achievements alone could not sustain a lasting sense of happiness.

After reading her book, I recognized the trajectory that she had described. It mirrored that of many individuals whom I had known in a wide array of fields ranging from academia to finance. While the catalysts for their ambitions hadn't been as devasting as that of Pappas, they had bet their happiness on their next big achievement.

They had fooled themselves into thinking that their next goal, whether getting into a prestigious degree program, winning a grant, or earning a promotion, would finally give them the sense of happiness that had so far eluded them. Of course, when they realized their objectives, my acquaintances were disappointed to find that they were nowhere near as happy as they thought they would be. Then they would pin their hopes on the next accomplishment, then the next, then the next—repeat ad nauseam.

I reached out to Pappas to further ask about what she had learned after picking herself back from her post-Olympic depression and engaging in the necessary introspection to write her book.

Pappas said, "I learned the hard way that we can't solve an internal problem with an external solution—so I understand why it can be tempting (and even motivating) to drive towards achievement as a means to find happiness."

"However, once we achieve the external goals we set for ourselves, we find that nothing will be enough. Nothing from the outside world can ever change the way we feel about ourselves, not really. I think it's good and important to celebrate our external successes while also understanding that if there's something inside holding us back or keeping us down emotionally, the only way to overcome that is through therapy and self-care."

In fact, many feel a sense of emptiness after a major achievement. This mismatch of expectation and reality can be explained by a concept called “arrival fallacy,” the false belief that achieving a much-hoped-for goal can bring about sustained happiness.

Pappas shared her working philosophy on how to achieve lasting happiness while still running toward her goals. "I think one way to be happy is to accept that we're not going to feel happy all the time."

She recalled a piece of advice that she received from a coach. "When we're chasing a dream," she stated, "we're supposed to feel good one-third of the time, okay one-third of the time, and crappy one-third of the time. If I felt too good all of the time, it meant I wasn't pushing myself enough, but if I felt too crappy all the time, it meant I was fatiguing."

"Understanding this allowed me to relish and accept that I was not supposed to feel great all the time—in fact, I felt happier in those moments when I did not feel great because it meant I was on the path to chasing my dream." In a sense, the joy felt at the pursuit of the goal itself was at times greater than the pleasure gained at its realization.

To answer the question that I posed at the beginning of the article, for the high-achievers among us, accomplishments themselves are not enough to sustain our happiness and our sense of self-worth. We are ultimate arbitrators of our own value, and with it, we hold the keys to our own happiness.

LinkedIn image: msgrafixx/Shutterstock

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