It's a common misconception that reaching our goals will automatically lead to happiness™️ and fulfilment. The truth is, accomplishing what we set out to do can sometimes leave us feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. But why is this? We’ve put all the work in, for goodness sake and followed the rules, so why do we not get what we were promised?
Let's dive into the science of the brain a bit to work out why joy is not something you can spark from doing things - and how we can actually achieve it.
Our brains are wired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. This is why we feel good when we eat a delicious meal, accomplish a difficult task or read a text message from someone we think is cute. The release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter (that’s a message carrier, in layfollks terms), which is associated with pleasure, reinforces our behaviour and makes us want to repeat it. This is what's known as the brain's reward system. A little sugar rush of rewards (and what loads of illicit substances try and recreate to get us feeling the feel-good chemicals in our brains).
However, our brain's reward system can also be a fickle little beast. Once we've accomplished a goal, the dopamine release decreases, and the excitement and motivation that came with it starts to fade. This is why the high of landing a new opportunity (work and play) or finishing a big project can slide off way to feelings of boredom and dissatisfaction.
One of the reasons achieving our goals doesn't always bring us happiness is that we often rely on these external achievements to determine our worth and success. We believe that if we have a decent partner, a nice home, a fancy frock, or a massive Instagram following, we'll finally be happy (and the subtext to this is “because it will make life easier”).
But the problem with looking outside ourselves for these big tick marks is that it's never enough. There's always something more we could have, something better we could be doing. And marketing companies are experts at playing on this and reminding us we need to go a little bit further, and THEN we can be happy. So, even when we achieve our goals, we're left feeling like we've fallen short. And the sugar rush of false promises from capitalist validation leaves us all needing the dentist (and probably unable to afford it).
So, of course, all very well and good; that’s what we shouldn’t be doing, but how do we break free from this cycle of external validation and achieve true happiness and fulfilment? The answer is no surprise: it comes from within. It is about embedding a sense of worth and confidence in ourselves, which is not reliant on what is happening around us or what benchmarks we set ourselves. It is about building a certainty that you’ve always got your own back, no matter what happens.
One way to cultivate internal validation is to focus on the process of finding your idea of happiness, improvement, connection and learning rather than just saying happiness is a fleeting thing (and probably something other people get). When we begin to focus on the process, we grow a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction every step of the way. This serves to keep us motivated, up to and beyond our goals.
Another way to cultivate internal validation is to set goals which align with your values and passions. When you're pursuing something that you genuinely care about, working towards it is the true purpose itself. So maybe your goal is to have a house with a garden? Because it aligns with your values that you want your family to have somewhere outdoors they can play – and that improves their health and happiness. Peeling back that one layer and looking at not just what you want but why you want it will always serve to help keep you more on track.
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "I'll be happy when..." But the truth is happiness and fulfilment are not things you can achieve by reaching a specific goal or acquiring a particular object. In Buddhism, these fleeting rushes are called rapture, which is a different life state from true happiness.
Happiness is a state of being that comes from within, which most of us know, but we also secretly think there are exceptions, like winning the lottery, going on a beach holiday, or finding the ideal partner. These exceptions are sneaky because they serve as constant reminders that we just need to work a little harder, to do a little more work on everything and then life will be a breeze. But chasing a life of ease is actually opting out of life. Life is full of tricky bits and intriguing bits and slow bits and lonely bits and confusing bits and all the other facets and phases and flaws. By welcoming all of the flavours that life throws at us and being willing to dabble in them all (rather than feeling like we are constantly playing dodgeball), we finally get to relax into the safety net of deep happiness.
So, the next time you find yourself thinking, "I'll be happy when..." ask yourself if, in this moment, you are running away from life or running towards it. This is the way that you could discover that letting go of seeking eternal happiness may be the most joyful decision you ever make.