Ever experienced that feeling of hitting a goal and riding a short, sweet, slippery high– before being left flatter than a can of Diet Coke left out overnight as your elation dissolves? Or of looking around at the facts of your life, acknowledging that all is as you hoped, and yet finding yourself rubbing against a pervading sense of dissatisfaction?
If so, know that this specific genre of existential angst is supremely normal. Take it from Sara Kuburic, an Australia-based existentialist psychotherapist (@millennial.therapist) and author of the forthcoming ‘It's On Me’ (Quercus, £16.99, published September 2023).
‘I think people can feel a sense of disappointment once they reach their goals because they realise that doing so didn’t "solve" their problems or make them happy,’ she says.
Why hitting your goals doesn't always fulfil you
For some, neatly ticking off the list of life's heavy hitters, accomplishment-wise, might bring contentment. But that's not necessarily the case for everyone. ‘Getting engaged or getting that promotion might not stop you from questioning your meaning in life or from hating yourself,’ she adds.
Indeed, once you bring a dream to fruition, it's normal for that tingly buzz of excitement to taper off.
A possible problem stemming from this, Dr Kuburic says, is that people can fear that nothing is actually worth its hype. ‘Most of us cope by setting another goal and focusing our attention on achieving it, so that we don’t have to focus on the larger questions in life,’ she says.
That isn't to say that goals aren't worth striving for or that it's all hopeless – far from it. Rather, as Dr Kuburic alludes to, it's more that there might be some deeper, more profound questions about who you are and how you want your life to stack up – or even about how you frame your successes – that you need to explore to achieve a greater sense of satisfaction (more on how to do this, later.)
The 'motivation molecule'
So, what is going on in your brain when the excitement of a win dwindles faster than the number of Maltesers left in the box of Celebrations once opened?
For that, explains neuroscientist Nicole Vignola (@nicolesneuroscience), author of the forthcoming ‘Rewire’ (Penguin, £18.99, published May 2024) you need to look to the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is the chemical that keeps you chasing little pings of excitement by hunting out notifications on your Instagram page or by planning a group trip to Lisbon.
‘A lot of people think of dopamine as the "reward molecule", but it's actually the "motivation molecule,"’ she explains. It gives you the drive to work for your reward. So what tends to happen is that you reach your goal and then the dopamine drops off.’
While you ride high on its heady promise as you tap in extra hours at work trying to snare a title upgrade or piece together the interior of your dream flat on Pinterest, its absence when you do get there, then, can contribute to a sense of ‘huh?’
‘A lot of people, I believe, live chasing dopamine. It might mean that we think that life is going to be "complete" once we've achieved this or that.’
Of course, dopamine isn't the sole molecule responsible for fizzy, feed-good feelings. You've likely heard of serotonin, a spike of which is partly responsible for floaty sensations of wellbeing when you're laughing uproariously in a group of people you love or when you surf a surge of contentment sitting on the beach with your toes in the sand. You'll be familiar, too, with endorphins, the root cause of your post-gym euphoria.
These latter chemicals come out to play when you hit a goal, rather than before, in the 'motivation' stage. Enjoying this flurry in the moment is delicious. But, says Vignola, thanks to our ‘now what?' culture, it can be hard to simply luxuriate in them while they last. ‘The problem is we put an emphasis on the future. So when you get that lovely mix of hormones it can be easy to, rather than pausing and basking in the moment, to go: "Okay, what's next?"’
Your goals – or other people's?
There are other possible mechanisms at play, too. In our society, it's easy to become absorbed into the stream of other people's expectations and end up pursuing someone else's vision of a ‘good’ life, rather than one that's authentic to you.
‘Our actions, successes, and relationships will only bring us closer to happiness if they align with who we are,’ is Dr Kuburic's observation.
Should you find yourself ticking off achievements but never feeling content for more than a fleeting moment, she suggests that you may not have stopped to ask yourself what you really want; that you could be trying to live a life to make other people happy or that you aren't entirely sure who you are – meaning that some of your decisions don't tee up with your true desires.
Understanding your own dreams
To illustrate this conundrum, she offers an example. ‘I had a friend who, while doing her undergraduate degree at university, planned to become a psychologist. But her family wanted her to be a lawyer. So, she enrolled in law school. She is now very successful in the legal field, but feels like her accomplishments are meaningless. She still wishes she was a therapist. The goals she has achieved are not aligned with who she is.’
Vignola concurs. ‘Not being on the path you want to be on is a big one. We're shaped by our peers, our parents and other people around us. Maybe all your friends growing up said they wanted to be doctors, so you think you should try and be one too, and go down that trajectory – but, really, you're a creative person. It means that people can reach their goals, only to realise it's not what they really wanted at all.’
Getting to know yourself
If that chimes for you and you'd like to try and tease apart what might make you happier, Dr Kuburic advises trying to get to know yourself like you might someone you're dating.
‘What sorts of things would you ask or observe? What actions would lead to a sense of closeness, understanding or safety… try doing this with yourself. Observe, question, reflect. Check in with your thoughts, feeling and body once a day. Even something as simple as journaling about "what did I learn about myself today?" can be helpful.’
Vignola, similarly, advocates for working out your values: core qualities that matter to you such as courage, peace, security, fun and compassion.
Identifying yours, she says, can make it easier to look at what other people are doing and realise that, while a three bedroomed semi/ going travelling/ moving to the countryside might be great for them, it doesn't actually stack up with how you want to live your life.
Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude
Perhaps you're confident that you are on the right track, but want some help truly feeling appreciation for it all. If that's you, another possible tonic acknowledged by both experts is gratitude.
‘Humans have a negativity bias,’ says Vignola. It's something that worked well in our past – the person who assumes danger is around the forest corner and steels themselves ahead of time is a stronger candidate for passing on their genes than the one who assumes that life is a riot of flowers and rainbows – but it's something to work on catching when existential threats aren't hiding in the bushes.
Remind yourself that this bias exists, says Vignola, before working on feeling the joy of what you've achieved, or for what you've got.
Such stopping to smell the proverbial roses can be nourishing. ‘A lot of lovely things happen in life but we are not paying attention,’ adds Dr Kuburic. ‘Many of us filter out the positive and focus on the negative, or focus on the “next” thing that will help make us “happy.” I think practicing gratitude allows us to slow down and pay attention to the things that are meaningful, valuable and joyful.’
‘Part of the reasons so many of us are unhappy is because we haven’t made space for happiness – we haven’t taken the time to actually be happy about the things that are working out or are meaningful.’
Another suggestion from Vignola is that, as ever, if you're struggling with persistent, unchanging negative feelings, it might be worth engaging with things that make you feel good, like exercise and spending time with friends, and stepping away from things which can fuel discontentment, like scrolling your social feeds.
Dr Kuburic's parting shot, to those of you wondering how to chase longer term contentment rather than successive, perhaps ultimately disappointing, goals? ‘One, you’re allowed to change your mind; you’re allowed to feel unhappy or unfulfilled [and want something different].’
‘Two, as you continue to change and evolve so will the things that make you happy – remain curious and flexible. Three, not only are you capable of change, you’re responsible to change. You’re responsible to live the life you want! You deserve it.’
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