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The Disappointment of Success

we think success will feel great, but it is fleeting
❝When you fall in love with the don't have to be happy.❞ -James Clear

It's 2003, and I'm talking to my friend Peter. Peter and I worked as tellers at a bank in between classes. We get to talking about one of Peter's friends who feels like he's broke if his checking account drops below $1,000. I can't imagine having that much money. Any money that gets deposited in my account is gone almost immediately; I have bills to pay.

After college, I set a goal of saving $1,000. Eventually, I hit that goal, but it didn't feel as good as I thought it would. Back in college, I would have felt rich if I had $1,000. Now that I have it, I feel the same as I did yesterday.

I decided that maybe I need to set a goal to save $10,000. This takes a little bit more time, but I eventually hit my goal. Hitting this goal should have given me a lot of joy because after I hit my goal of saving $1,000, I couldn't imagine having a five-figure savings account. Unfortunately, I don't feel any different.

I now decide that I have to save $100,000. You already know how this game ends.

The problem is that the joy from reaching these goals is fleeting if it even exists at all. It would have been a different story if I went from $0 to $1,000 overnight, $1,000 to $10,000 in a couple of days, or $10,000 to $100,000 in a week. But that's not how it works. Every day that passes gets me closer and closer to my goal so that when I finally hit it, I experienced going from $950 to $1,000, $9,950 to $10,000, and $99,950 to $100,000. That experience day-to-day isn't that different.

I had gotten used to my new level of savings as the days went past. That made it nearly impossible to feel a lot of joy when I hit my goal.

Goal-Setting: Expectations

The difference between what we expect when we achieve our goals and how we actually feel when we hit our goals is a bigger deal than it seems based on intuition alone. We tend to set goals that represent some change from how things are now. This positive change gives us something to aim at; it gives us direction in our lives. Because it represents positive change and is different from how things are now, we imagine that it's going to be great when we finally get there. We think we will feel nothing but joy.

We think like this in part because the difference between where we are and where we would be if we achieved our goals is quite significant. If you could instantaneously go from where you are now to where you want to be, that would represent a big change. That would be a big deal.

Unfortunately, it's never instantaneous change.

achieving a goal feels like it comes with joy before we've started making progress

Goal-Setting: Reality

The reality is that once we set goals, we make incremental progress towards those goals. Over time, we eventually get to where we want to be. The journey, though, represents a little bit of change every day. Seth Godin, in his blog, writes about what change we want to have happen a hundred days from now. Presumably, you want to be in a better position in a hundred days than you do today. For this to happen, he says, the 99th day will have to be different from today. It stands to reason that the 80th day will have to be different from today, and so will the 50th day. You can follow this logic all the way down to tomorrow. Tomorrow will need to be different from today.

The point is that doing something small every day adds up over time to get us to where we want to be. So the reality is that we don't feel that big shot of joy that should come from hitting our goal. That's because, on the final day when we do hit our goal, on that 100th day, all that happened was just a little bit of change. A little bit of change doesn't feel like it's worth celebrating (this is where practicing gratitude comes into play). The joy we get from getting our goal to split up over time.

The important thing to consider here is that we're not the same person halfway between now and our goal as we were when we started. We get used to that incremental change.

because we constantly make progress toward the goal, it doesn't feel as good when we hit it

Hedonic Adaptation

We are very good at adapting to our surroundings. This works just as well on the downside as it does on the upside. We are sensitive to changes in our situation, but we get used to absolute levels.

This is true even if we got a large shot of joy when we achieved our goals. That joy would be short-lasting because we would get used to the new situation that we found ourselves in.

It's especially true when you realized that we make incremental progress towards those goals. Each day we make progress is a day that we get used to that progress that we made. By the time we finally get to our goal, we've already gotten used to what it's like to be close to that goal. Day 99 becomes the new baseline, so day 100 doesn't feel like that big a deal.

As a result, there is no big shot of joy because the difference between our 99th day's baseline and our hundredth day of achieving our goal is minimal. In fact, as we get closer and closer to our goal, we start to set our sights on new, bigger goals.

hedonic adaptation is when we get used to our new lives

Changing Expectations

When it's day one, and we are thinking of our future selves achieving our goal at day 100, we are used to what it's like on day one and anticipate what it will feel like on day 100. As we get closer to our goal, however, it becomes more and more real to us that we will achieve that goal. So in between today and the day we hit our goal, we change our expectations. We continually adjust our goals so that we're always pursuing more.

Few people have defined how much is enough. Without knowing that, it's easy to keep setting our sights higher.

we are always pursuing more but will never get there

Using Systems Instead of Goals

A clear antidote to this is to focus on the process instead of the outcome. If you can find a way to get joy from the process, or system, that you do every day, then you can detach the source of your happiness and well-being from any particular outcome.

A system represents the habits and processes that you do every day that add value to your life. A goal is an outcome. Focus on systems and the goals will take care of themselves.

systems over goals

Success often feels disappointing because there's a disconnect between our expectations of how it will feel to succeed, and how easily we get used to that success. Falling in love with the process will help you feel successful no matter what the outcome is.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want

Clear, James: Atomic Habits

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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