Why success feels empty, and how to counteract it

Posted September 8

Our society is goal-oriented, from Olympic athletes' competing to bring home the gold to entry-level employees seeking to earn a promotion. But why would achieving those goals leave someone feeling empty rather than elated, and how can that let down be avoided?

That empty feeling is called the arrival fallacy, and it operates according to the premise that as you work toward a goal, you come to expect that you will reach it, Forbes explained. Expecting your goal’s future success triggers the brain’s reward centers, producing a soothing feeling. This feeling continues and you adjust to it, so much so that when you meet your goal it’s less satisfying than expected.

And this can develop into an endless cycle of searching for what will make you happy, chasing goal after goal and reinforcing self-doubt, Forbes continued.

“Succeeding requires one set of skills,” Adele Scheele wrote for Huffington Post. “Managing success another set.”

Harvard Business Review said, based upon reader input, that workplace wins leaving you empty can come from a trade-off between career and personal goals, such as violating deeply held personal beliefs to get ahead in office politics. You may also feel your success isn’t recognized by others, or that your success may be the result of luck to an external factor such as luck.

Quora contributor Chrys Jordan wrote that it may be cultural influence and “a question of expectations.”

“As an American, I grew up with the understanding that the purpose in life was to reach a goal; the goal was seen as everything,” Jordan wrote. “Then you might expect that on reaching a goal, you will feel amazingly good. And if you feel less than amazingly good, then it would seem as a disappointment.”

Forbes, on a similar note, stated that it’s important to see success as fluid. What is a great career for a 20-something “may be a poor work-life fit by the time you turn 35.” Instead of buying completely into society’s dictations of what career milestones you should have reached at your age, define success on your own terms.

Forbes, The Huffington Post and Puttylike suggested these tips for getting past what Puttylike called “post-achievement depression”:

  • Rediscover your original purpose. It’s easy to fixate on professional objectives to where you would lose sight of this, and can be remedied with simple questions such as “What would I be doing if money wasn’t a problem?” or “When do I feel most alive?”
  • Look back at previous accomplishments, even keeping a file or log of successes and praise so that you don’t forget the worth of your actions.
  • Get started right away on the next task. The sooner you get your mind off what's getting you down, the sooner it goes away.
  • Remember, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Enjoy the process, not just the outcome.
  • Don’t wait for praise from others. Give yourself praise.
  • Celebrate with a tangible gift to yourself, “to remind you of your recognized efforts.”

Email:, Twitter: @Sarahsonofander.


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