If You're Stuck In This Cycle, You'll Always Struggle To Be Happy

Photo: ImYanis / shutterstock
young woman with glasses smiles on a city street

Two women walk down the street, and I sit and watch them, wondering about their inner lives. 

Staring down the highly coifed, artfully dressed woman reeking accomplishment and familiarity, I wonder if she's happy. She wears a brand I know, matching shoes to scarf and walks hurriedly and alone.

The other woman I admire. She tells jokes, laughs easily, walks slowly, stretches the coffee break longer. She probably fails, sometimes. 

She takes life a day at a time, and never asks, What’s next?

These two women are symbols of different directions we can take in life in our pursuit of happiness. I think about each, often. 

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Was I wired to succeed, or addicted to success?

It is fitting that I grew up on a farm called Success and as long as I can remember, I awakened to a mind full of goals more grand than those of the day before.

At six years old I didn’t just go for a walk, I embarked on A World Tour. I didn't spend the day writing, I envisioned being A World Famous Writer and when I absconded the corner bedroom, I became The Boss Of The House.  

The years passed and I secretly wanted to be the best and most. Don’t misunderstand, I knew I wasn't the smartest or prettiest, didn't waste time on envy or pride simply gaining satisfaction on the hamster wheel of striving. What I didn't know then was that I was fuelling an addiction to success. 

In High School, I sweated every assignment long after my classmates closed the books, argued my marks with teachers and ignored the eye rolls and quizzical head shakes from my peers. Too distracted, I spent years alone in the study hall with daylight fading, the few friends long gone and a hazy vision of some goal in the distance. I was attracted to the gym, the classroom and books, anywhere I could work at something with a promise to arrive somewhere.

In every workplace scenario, I aimed higher, worked harder, and bagged promotions, validation and rewards. The bigger the goal the bigger the high. 

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Chasing the next goal

Adulthood found me the ideal job where hard work and sales, led to more money, a private school for the kids, a nice house, and nice cars but each achievement and purchase landed with a decided plunk! At about the time that I was matching shoes to my suits, I also felt an empty hole where I hoped to find joy.

After a sigh, a nudge of disappointment, I sought new goals and harder work. 

The trouble with my success is that it came on the heels of a list of goals: fitness, health, career, home, and money. I even had a list for my children and husband. So when I was at my fittest, earning more money than I could have hoped for, and having it all, my bathroom mirror faced a desperately unhappy woman trapped in silence. No one would listen to someone who had it all and still wasn’t happy. I wouldn't either.

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The science behind seeking a "dopamine dump" — and how it affects happiness

Dr. Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation explains why achievement and success left me disappointed and empty and why I gravitated towards new and more challenging goals.  A multitude of achievement junkies and I spend our lives caught in the highs and lows of the dopamine cycle. 

It might help to understand that dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages and it is responsible for our experience of pleasure, motivation and reward. Sounds like a good thing that you can't have too much of, right? Wrong!  

You and I have a baseline release of dopamine that is enough to keep us feeling content and satisfied. Some researchers call it the dopamine drip. But when you are driven, and goal seeking you get a dump of dopamine that drops off dramatically once you achieve your goal. You see the problem, right?

Dopamine is released when you want something — but as soon as you reach the goal, the dopamine supply ends.

Since the beginning of humankind, we have been wired to want and seek and dopamine as a reward-seeking, goal-striving substance has kept us fed, clothed and housed. In a survival economy, we need dopamine to give us that push out the door, but living as we do in a society of having it all, the overproduction of dopamine is counterproductive. 

Is this the reason for my sadness?

The second factor that contributed to my post-achievement lull is the brain’s wisdom which balances pleasure with pain. Dr Lembke compares the brain’s quest for balance to a teeter-totter that swings downward towards discomfort after feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. At a resting level, all is well but when the stimulus to pleasure occurs, the counterbalance comes right after making pleasure even more short-lived.

That explains why you feel unreasonably uncomfortable, restless, irritable, and unhappy after getting that job you wanted, the promotion you worked hard for, writing that last chapter and why you quickly want to recreate the feeling of pleasure. So you seek a new, higher, more worthy goal. 

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Happiness is not an achievement

Psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar introduced the term arrival fallacy in his book Happier to describe the false assumption that once you reach a goal, you will experience enduring happiness. Even though we know this is not true, our society still promotes the belief that when you reach a goal you will be happy and overachievers like me still seek a new shiny toy, the crest of a mountain, or a box to check off. Only to feel let down and lost a few days later. I know the error of the following thoughts:

Once I get this promotion, I’ll be on track.

When I don't have to work so hard, I can relax.

My intervention

Even when I knew better, my addiction to achievement far outweighed my desire to slow down. I was still driven and dealing with the cycles of high and low when the organization I worked for closed its doors and my fuel for drivenness and success was suddenly gone. I had nowhere to go after the gym, nothing to push and promote and I was paralyzed and lost without confidence and identity.

I had to pretend I was OK.

For almost two weeks, I existed in a stupor, going through the motions of making meals, cleaning house and catching up on the accumulated tasks of months if not years. 

Many years ago, a well-meaning friend told me to put on a happy face and “never let them see you sweat.” So after losing my unending source of goals and tasks (my job), I resorted to pretending that I was OK.

The woman who changed me forever

Day after day I played dress up and makeup until I met a woman who saw right through me.

Picture this: I have traveled halfway around the world and, when meeting my mother’s sister for the first time, she keeps saying, "How are you?" each time more loudly than the first, and I don’t know what to say. I pull a breath distance back, frowning because she is too close and too real and I reach for an answer the way I always have. An answer that is somewhat truthful, seemingly sincere and said with conviction. 

The woman's voice was low and gravelly, and her primary school words blended with the island dialect made me feel shrill and foolish. 

"I am working on a thesis," I said. 

Her face drew in closer to mine, and I flinched at the moist earnestness of her eyes and a voice that held more care than I was used to.

"No, no, I don't ask about your thesis. I want to know how are you? Do you laugh often, enjoy life, and have good, good good, friends? Are you happy?" she asked.

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Learning to love the dopamine drip

For the next 10 days my aunt doused me with slow living, something I could never have done alone. We walked to the market where I watched her choose fresh fish at one stall, yams at another and fruit from someone she knew by name. The slow simmer of the pot was spiced with stories, wise tales and belly laughs. At night we hosted family and friends I had never met and as life would have it would never see again.

When I returned home a few weeks later I had accomplished nothing except a bank account of memories and good times. Now I am the person in the market who smells the cilantro, squeezes the mangos and asks the person beside me, “What you are cooking today?” Or the one in the crowded conference hall who walks over with a ready handshake and says, “I am sure we have met before.” 

The science behind consciously slowing down

Slowing down helped me to discover the powerful now and the clarity that comes with the practice of mindfulness meditation.

The first physiological studies of meditation in the 1950s and 1960s, the practical application of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical Center in 1982 and a Harvard study authored by Sara Lazar repeat the story of better mental health, stress management and emotion regulation

As you may already know the busy mind doesn't want to be present and mindfulness requires patience and commitment which did not come naturally to me. But it was the centredness and long-term benefit that convinced me to compassionately interrupt my busy mind and redirect to something I could see, hear, taste, smell and touch. Thus a spicy curry, the delicate outlines of a leaf and the murmur of a stream became the medicine my soul craved.

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My goal-orientation was never far away, however, and I committed to writing a gratitude journal for three months. After a week of being grateful for my house, kids and husband, I drifted to my everyday consumption, items so overlooked they had become invisible. Clean water, fresh air, a long hug, hot coffee, a smile from a stranger, morning light, and photosynthesis all brought excitement to my gratitude pages.

I experimented with numbered lists, then full paragraphs even stories of the people, places and things that inspired me to awe and wonder of my brave new world.

I don’t want to give you the impression that life is magical and I am no longer goal-oriented.

That is just not true. In fact, I developed a Mission Statement to structure a set of habits that would guide my everyday life and keep me moving in the direction I sought. They do include some grand accomplishments but I have been careful to break them into small wins, prioritizing encouragement and compliments and the occasional adventure off the beaten path. And when I get mad and sad, I slow down and smell the cilantro.

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Reta Walker is a therapist who specializes in healing relationships. She offers one-on-one sessions, couples retreats, and courses to help couples get back on track.

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This article was originally published at Reta Walker's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.