Arrival Fallacy: Will Reaching a Goal Make You Happy?

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The arrival fallacy is the false assumption that once you reach a goal, you will experience enduring happiness.

Have you ever had the experience of working hard to reach a goal in life, only to find that once you get to the finish line, you’re filled with depression and stress, rather than happiness? If so, you may be experiencing arrival fallacy.

The arrival fallacy stems from the idea ingrained into many of us since we were children that the key to happiness in life is having a good job, making lots of money, getting married, experiencing notoriety in our careers—just generally having a forward-thinking, goal-oriented mindset.

But research has shown that those sorts of things don’t bring us happiness, at least not on a long-term basis.

Let’s take a look at the concept of arrival fallacy, its origin, and meaning, along with some tips for living happily—without arrival fallacy getting in the way.

History and Concept of Arrival Fallacy

The term “arrival fallacy” was coined by Tal Ben-Shahar, who has a PhD from Harvard University in Organizational Behavior. Ben-Shahar is an author and is well known for teaching lectures on happiness at Columbia University.

According to "The New York Times," Ben-Shahar defines the arrival fallacy as a popular illusion that achieving a certain goal will lead to happiness. He mentions that the arrival fallacy has been experienced by celebrities and other highly successful people who end up experiencing mental illness and substance abuse even after achieving their dreams.

Ben-Shahar says that often people who experience the arrival fallacy start off unhappy, and reach for a goal that is supposed to cure their sadness. When they find that success doesn’t fix their unhappiness, not only are they disappointed, but may end up feeling hopeless and depressed. Often, the arrival fallacy only makes unhappiness and mental states worse.

What Causes Arrival Fallacy?

There hasn’t been much research into the arrival fallacy and what causes it, but there has been a mountain of research on what makes people happy.

When you look at factors that bring people happiness, factors like having meaningful relationships and learning how to focus on the positive top the list. However, external successes like money, climbing the career ladder, and social status do not make the cut. Research has found that these don’t usually bring happiness—at least not long-term happiness.

Still, society has ingrained in us the notion that happiness is very much tied to reaching goals and becoming noteworthy to others. This notion is still widespread. For example, 2014 research out of Harvard found that children of today are still being fed the idea that achievement and personal success are the keys to happiness.

Furthermore, these qualities are being stressed above things like caring for others or being equitable or fair.

Tips for Overcoming Arrival Fallacy

Experiencing arrival fallacy is fairly common, and it can be hard to cope when you find yourself depressed or stressed after reaching a long-awaited goal. Here are some tips for coping, moving through the feelings, and ultimately achieving enduring happiness in life.

Focus on the Process

When we are aiming to reach a particular goal, we are usually hyper-focused on that goal and the happiness we expect it will give us. But focusing on the process more than the end goal might be the key to happiness.

Research published in Harvard Business Review found that when it comes to work, “small wins” bring people happiness more than anything else. When an employee feels as though they have achieved something on a daily basis—even if it doesn't involve reaching a goal—they are more likely to feel motivated and content.

According to the research, supporting a person’s progress involves providing enough time and support, making sure goals are clear, and recognizing each small achievement along the way.

Work on Being Present in the Moment

When you are focused on achieving happiness based on reaching a goal, you are living in the future rather than the present. Numerous studies have found that if you want to be truly happy, you have to learn how to live in the present moment.

Mindfulness Helps

For example, a 2021 study found that people who practice mindfulness experience a greater sense of purpose in life and increased engagement in activities that bring them happiness. Additionally, a study from 2016 found that people who practice meditation experience greater levels of self-compassion and happiness.

Adding more mindfulness into your day can be simple. It can be achieved by starting a meditation practice (starting with just 5 minutes a day!) or just taking time to stop what you are doing, breathe slowly, and experience what it means to be present in your life.

Take Stock of the Things Proven to Bring People Happiness

Research from Harvard based on 75 years of observing what makes people happy found that true and lasting happiness comes down to a few basic things. First, people who are most happy are able to let go of all of the small annoyances and inconveniences of life and focus on the simple things that make them happy.

Secondly, having warm connections with others brings people more happiness than any other type of external success in life. Letting go of people who bring negativity into your life is also important, according to the research.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Taking stock of what is good in your life is another way of focusing on the present moment instead of some future goal. It’s also a great way to concentrate more on the things that bring you joy and make them a priority in life. In fact, research has found that people who focus on what they are grateful for are less likely to experience stress and depression.

One way to add more gratitude into your day is to keep a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing one thing each day that you feel grateful for, such as the way your child held your hand at school drop off, or the fact that you woke up and got dressed despite feeling depressed.

Consider Therapy

If you experience an episode of arrival fallacy that is leaving you depressed and anxious and you are having trouble shaking those feelings, you might want to consider therapy. Meeting with a therapist is a good way to unpack how you are feeling, and come up with methods for managing your feelings.

Your therapist can also help you understand the mindset that set you up for disappointment even once you reached your goal, and help you learn more positive ways to handle goal setting in the future.

A Word From Verywell

If the arrival fallacy is something you’ve experienced before, or are dealing with now, you should know that you aren’t alone. It’s common for people to end up feeling depressed, disappointed, anxious, stressed, and even hopeless after they’ve reached a goal. If you are having trouble coping with your feelings, or are looking for ways to manage goal setting in the future, consider reaching out to a therapist or counselor for support.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.