As a middle class, midwestern American, I didn’t have a clue about the concept of rest. From childhood, I was encouraged to set goals and achieve gold stars for jobs well done. I grew into an adult who measured worth by success, accomplishment and status.
Goal setting is a good practice, don’t get me wrong. Goals give us purpose, they help us get things done, they help us build ourselves and our lives with intention. Some brain chemistry works in favor of goal setting as well — when we set goals, our brain releases dopamine. Just like we are drawn to other rewards, such as food, sex or drugs, working towards a goal can make us feel good. Yet, last winter when I had arguably achieved my greatest success — a funded position as a postgraduate researcher and three more years to live in the UK with my partner — why was I also feeling my most hollow? Why does that feeling of success fade so quickly after it’s actualized?
Turns out, it has a bit to do with brain chemistry.
Dopamine is often known as the feel-good chemical, but it plays a larger role in motivation and reward seeking. Dopamine isn’t simply released when we eat chocolate, its role is related to our motivation to pursue something we want. We see the chocolate, we want the chocolate, dopamine urges us to eat the chocolate, and then the chocolate also tastes amazing, reinforcing the desire to seek more chocolate. It drives us to seek out the things that make us feel good, and encourages us not only to want these things, but to take action towards getting them.
While in reality, its more complex than that and it depends on where dopamine is interacting with your brain, it makes sense that dopamine has been studied thoroughly because of it’s relation to reward. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about what makes us feel good? This reward pathway, known as the mesolimbic dopamine system, has higher levels of dopamine when people eat food, have sex, listen to music or do drugs. However, there’s also more dopamine in situations we wouldn’t consider rewarding: war veterans experiencing PTSD flashbacks, or rats that have recently lost a fight. To get to the heart of it, dopamine’s role in the reward pathway really comes down to what’s known as incentive salience.
It’s the ability to identify incentives and make us want them — whether that’s chocolate or safety.
While we are working towards goal attainment, each milestone gives us another hit of dopamine, which pushes us to continue further towards our goal. Dopamine is also released when we achieve our goal, but as we reach our goal, the release of dopamine tapers off — we’ve got what we want, the motivation to continue isn’t needed anymore. It is the end of an attainment cycle that has felt good to be in. This is why we can be left feeling empty after the achievement of a long-time goal we’ve been working towards — and Richard Davison’s two types of positive affect support this notion. We have pre-goal attainment positive affect, which is the good feelings we get when working towards a goal, and post-goal attainment positive affect, which is the short-lived release of contentment after the goal has been achieved.
Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychologist and Harvard lecturer, talks about this all too familiar belief that when we achieve a particular goal, we will (finally) become happy — and stay that way. He calls this experience the arrival fallacy, and in his book Happier writes, “the truth is, the moment of achievement, although glorious, is only fleeting. We’re then left feeling let down and lost, unsure of where to direct the energy we’re so used to calling up to allow us to keep chasing our dreams.”
Achievement can be sort of addicting, especially if it helps us avoid feeling discomfort or unworthiness. If we try to avoid the dopamine drop and the blues that come after finishing a big project by jumping straight into the next one, we are denying ourselves the rest and celebration that we truly deserve.
Something practiced often sticks, and our brains are malleable machines. We are beginning to see the impact of this attainment complex in the high rates of burnout blooming in millennial workers — people who have only been in the workforce for maybe twenty years. I learned in my case, instead of taking a moment to appreciate the effort and work that brought me to my success, my mind was already onto the next goal, thinking and planning of papers to write or conferences to present at. Infamous imposter syndrome became a familiar friend, and I was caught between my achievements and feeling like I didn’t deserve or was good enough for them.
I’ve begun to practice allowing for recovery time. After I’ve dedicated myself to a project, whether its been successful or not, I’ve come to see that I need time to rest, to eat good food and to reconnect to the other parts of my life that I may have been neglecting. I avoid burnout by making time to remind myself what brings me joy and what I value. If we’ve been focused on attainment, we may be out of touch with these other parts of our identity.
Additionally, I reflect over the experience. If it was successful, what have I learned? If it wasn’t, what have I learned to better my next try? Goal-setting research has found that receiving feedback helps with performance. We can anchor ourselves to our successes by taking time to reflect over what we’ve learned, what we appreciated about the experience and where we’ve grown. Overtime, this can make us feel more grounded, confident and self-assured and these practices can help the feeling of contentment that comes after success around a little longer.