Community Add OnsFourteen Fundamentals

Fundamental Six: Lower Your Expectations & Aspirations


Most of us are living for the day that our dreams come true, assuming that this will be the day when we’ll be happy. We place great faith that the achievement of our goals will transform us from relatively unhappy, dissatisfied people into blissfully happy ones.

But in actuality, it appears that the true impact of achieving our goals on happiness may not be as strong as our society has led us to believe. Although most of our cultural propaganda tends to reinforce the idea that the “lifestyle of the rich and famous” holds the ultimate in happiness for all of us, from time to time, an contrary story appears in the media about how very unhappy some at the pinnacle of life are. Certainly you’ve heard of individuals who’ve worked their way to the top, only to find no greater happiness upon their arrival. They often report being mystified, because they did all the “right” things. They went to the right schools, they got the right degrees, they got into the right career, they married the right person, they made the right friends, they moved up the success ladder using all the right strategies — and, finally, they arrived at the level of success they had always imagined for themselves. But nothing happened! They had done everything they were supposed to do, but somehow their life was not deliriously happy. Instead, something was still missing. The achievement of their life-long goals did not really change things very much, at least in terms of happiness.

Indeed, many people find success somewhat empty and unfulfilling — some even find it disillusioning. A study of million-dollar state lottery winners (Brickman in Loftus) — something most of us dream to be the answer to all our happiness problems — actually found such winners to be no more happy than others as time went by. And even though, as we extensively documented in Volume I, income, occupational, and social success does contribute to personal happiness, never have the data shown them to be as strong a contributor as popular belief would predict.

The apparent reason for all this is that the achievement of goals just doesn’t have much of a “punch.” The impact it makes on happiness just isn’t that great — especially in the long run.

Certainly, at the moment of achievement, and for a little while thereafter, the achievement of a goal can provide a tremendous, temporary jolt of happiness. But after the dust settles, the happiness attained tends to fade. Successes in life, may be rather transitory in their effect on our happiness.

Take any of your own moments of high achievement. Say, for example, making an “A” in a difficult course, or winning a race at the regional track meet. A lot of work and effort went into the achievement, and when the victory was yours it certainly felt great. But as exhilarating as the moment was, how long did it last? A day? A week? But after a while, did it make much of an emotional difference in your day-to-day life? Probably not.


A second problem with long-term goals centers around the work involved compared to the reward received. Generally, the amount of effort required to achieve a particular goal far outweighs the happiness attained at the end.

Take the preceding examples: making an “A” or winning the track meet. The “high” was great, but how does it compare to the many, many months of difficult study and arduous practice it took to get your there? It’s pretty clear that the ratio is terribly  imbalanced: a lot of work for a minimal payoff. This is especially true if you didn’t enjoy doing the work!

Yes, herein, lies one of the major problems in staking our happiness on long-term goals. Most of us don’t enjoy the “work” part of achieving a goal at all. Face it, it often involves difficulty, it’s rarely appreciated, it requires a good deal of sacrifice, and it often provides little intrinsic reward on its own. Simply put, the hard work required to achieve our goals is often a most unpleasant way to spend our time. Therefore, when you add-up the days and months of unpleasant work it took to enjoy “a few moments in the sun,” you can see how imbalanced the effect on our day-to-day happiness is.

Now, on the other hand, if you’re enjoying the work involved — if it’s truly a pleasure — then this particular point doesn’t apply to you. But most people can’t honestly say this. Most of us detest hard work — that’s why it’s called “work.” It’s no fun to do it, we’re just hoping the payoff will make-up for it.

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