We often imagine that we’ll be happy as soon as we get a job/make partner/get tenure/get married/get that promotion/have a baby/move. As a writer, I often find myself imagining some happy future: “Once I sell this proposal…” or “Once this book comes out…”
In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the “arrival fallacy,” the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy. (Other fallacies include the “floating world fallacy,” the belief that immediate pleasure, cut off from future purpose, can bring happiness, and the “nihilism fallacy,” the belief that it’s not possible to become happier.) The arrival fallacy is a fallacy because arriving rarely makes you as happy as you expect.
Why? Because usually by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. You quickly become adjusted to the new state of affairs. And of course, arriving at one goal usually reveals a new goal. There’s another hill to climb.
In fact, working toward a goal can be a more powerful source of happiness than hitting it—which can sometimes be a letdown. It’s important, therefore, to look for happiness in the present, in the atmosphere of growth afforded by making gradual progress toward a goal (technical name: pre-goal attainment positive affect).
When I find myself focusing overmuch on the anticipated future happiness of arriving at a certain goal (as I often do), I remind myself to “Enjoy now.” If I can enjoy the present, I don’t need to count on the happiness that is—or isn’t—waiting for me in the future. The fun part doesn’t come later, now is the fun part.
So the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness. To the contrary. The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal. Nietzche explained it: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”