Kelly Newsome went to law school at the University of Virginia. She was a straight-A student, with big career goals, and she graduated at the top of her class.
After graduation, Kelly went on to a high-paying job as a lawyer, which had been her dream for six years.
But soon, Kelly discovered that checking company filings day in and out wasn’t what she had hoped for back in law school.
Eventually, the high of scoring her dream job wore off, and the reality of just being a highly paid paper-pusher set in.
Kelly wanted out so she chose to quit her $240,000 a year corporate job to pursue something more meaningful and true to herself.
In the book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at NYU, talks about The Progress Principle.
Haidt says that often times the pleasure of getting what you want is often fleeting.
For example, you work hard in college, dreaming about how happy you’d be if you could just get hired at your dream job. Then after time, you receive a phone call from someone congratulating you on earning the position. You’re happy at first, but as we saw with Kelly, eventually that happiness wears out.
Typically, you’re not thinking, “This is amazing!” But instead, you’re thinking, “Alright, what do I have to do now?”
You dream about all these things that could make you happy in life: getting accepted into your dream school, starting a business, running a marathon, etc.
You work every waking hour, imagining how happy you’d be if you could just achieve your goals. But then, after you achieve what you planned to achieve, you only experience a feeling of relief.
This is because when success seems increasingly probable, we experience relief. This is the feeling of closure and release.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have an hour of excitement, maybe two, but the feeling is rarely ever a lasting feeling of enthusiasm and elation.
Hence the saying, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
Studies have shown that as you make steps toward your goals, you’ll experience dopamine activity in your left prefrontal cortex. This is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress towards something. However, once you’ve achieved what it is you were striving for, the dopamine activity in your brain begins to settle down. You feel this feeling as contentment.
Haidt tells us,
“When it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination. The final moment of success is no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike.”
Haidt warns us,
“If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool.”
We see people do this all the time. They work extremely hard at something, and they expect some special euphoria when they get to the end. However, when they achieve success, they only find moderate and short lived pleasure.
This is The Progress Principle: Pleasure comes from making progress towards goals, not from achieving them.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t pursue your goals such as your dream job? No, it doesn’t. Definitely pursue your goals, but don’t hope to achieve happiness when you finally reach your end goal.
Instead, find happiness in the process and the work that it takes to get you to where you want to be in life. As Shakespeare said,
“Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”