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When Are You Finally "Good Enough"?

Here are three steps to understanding that achievement is not happiness.

Key points

  • Often no amount of achievement brings the happiness people strive for.
  • Society gives us a single formula for happiness: get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job, and achieve status and money.
  • Happiness entails you doubting desires by questioning them, focusing on gratitude, and choosing your number one priority in life with intention
Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
At what point are we satisfied with our achievements?
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

In nearly 20 years of practicing therapy, I’ve never had anyone walk into a session and say something like, “Due to my last promotion, I finally achieved complete wholeness and contentment in life.”

Once the initial high wears off, people’s reaction to success is usually bewilderment: “I’ve achieved the goal I thought would make me happy. But I’m back to being as miserable as ever. Why didn’t it work?”

Often their natural inclination is to conclude, “I obviously just didn’t set my goal high enough. When I achieve the next milestone, then I will be happy.” The process of resetting to a baseline level of happiness is known as the hedonic treadmill (Psychology Today).

As a therapist in Silicon Valley who has worked with many tech and business professionals, I notice the same trend repeatedly. People are shocked to discover that no amount of achievement brings the happiness they’ve been striving for. In many cases, the complete opposite holds. People sacrifice their mental health on the altar of achievement.

Relationships with spouses and children disintegrate. Friends, family, and hobbies all fall by the wayside. We eventually lose our very selves. But, consciously or not, the message people continue to cling to is that someday, all of this emotional hardship will be worth it when they reach a high enough mountain peak in the corporate promised land.

On a global scale, we can see some parallels when authoritarian ideologies justify destruction in the name of the greater good or in their belief that injustice can be tolerated if it will help usher in some vaguely understood utopic era when it will no longer be necessary. Nations and individuals can rationalize any level of sacrifice and destruction in the quest for some nebulous idealized future.

The problem is that no such utopia is coming. It never does. The present will always be messy and flawed. And, just as it was for Little Orphan Annie, our happiness will be a matter perpetually deferred until “Tomorrow.”

I don’t blame people for this error, which is entirely understandable given our social context. Society engrains several harmful messages on us from an early age. An example of such a message is that there is a single formula for happiness: get good grades, so you get into a good college, so you get a good job so that you can achieve status and money, and then you will be happy.

By the time people reach career age, they have been steeped in this mythos for decades and believe in it unquestionably. Deprogramming a message after such an extended period, with a lifetime of sunk cost and effort invested in a mythos, can be challenging to say the least.

Another maladaptive message we receive in tandem is that we are fundamentally inadequate; even if we do achieve, it should have been accomplished quicker and better by default. A recent example of this is quarterback Tom Brady breaking not one but two tablet computers in angry outbursts during a game he ultimately won (Nesbitt, 2022). Even one of the most accomplished athletes felt powerful distress when he felt a superfluous achievement was threatened. That is compelling evidence that such a mindset cannot and will not lead to happiness for anyone.

This maladaptive message can be confirmed by simply looking at the wealthiest and most successful people in the world, who often lead troubled, unhappy, and lonely lives. Generally, the farther up the ladder you go, the more miserable you are.

Take a recent public example. One of the first things Elon Musk’s daughter did when she turned 18 was file for a name change to distance herself from her father. She told the court, “I no longer live with or wish to be related to my biological father in any way, shape, or form” (Associated Press, 2022). How many days did he stay late at work rather than spend time with her and his other children? How much money makes losing our child worthwhile?

There are a few initial steps we can take to loosen the grip with which inadequacy controls our lives:

  1. Doubting our desires. We start to learn when we understand that our idea of what will make us happy is most likely very wrong. We give our predictive powers way too much credit. For example, winning the lottery often destroys people’s lives, yet we predict we will be the exception. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert (2012) is among the world’s leading experts on happiness, and he encourages us to question everything we think we want.
  2. Focusing on gratitude/perspective. I have worked with clients from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds at various points in my career. For many of them, losing their job could be quite literally the difference between housing or homelessness, eating or going hungry, or even life and death. But for the vast majority of professional workers, the stakes are much lower. While I generally don’t believe it's practical to compare one person’s suffering to another’s, I do think it’s helpful for people to check in with themselves as to whether their reaction to a perceived stressor is objectively out of proportion. If someone is fortunate enough that their housing, food, and healthcare are not in danger, it doesn’t make sense to obsess about achievement.
  3. Choosing your number one priority in life with intention. In many ways, the myth of “having it all” is an illusion. While some degree of balance is possible, one priority will always win out at the end of the day. Ask yourself, who benefits- and who loses- from my need for achievement? Often, this mindset may benefit the company we work for, but our families and we lose out in the long run.

References

Associated Press. (2022, June 23). Elon Musk's daughter granted legal name, Gender Change. AP NEWS. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://apnews.com/article/elon-musk-entertainment-gender-identity-sant…

Gilbert, D. (2012, April 26). The surprising science of happiness | Dan Gilbert. YouTube. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4q1dgn_C0AU&t=1s

Nesbitt, A. (2022, September 25). Tom Brady's tablet-breaking tantrum led to the NFL issuing a lame warning to all 32 teams. USA Today. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://ftw.usatoday.com/lists/buccaneers-tom-brady-tablet-tantrums-lea…

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Hedonic treadmill. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/hedonic-treadmill

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