The Problem With Our Need to Achieve

A few weeks ago, I attended a leadership training conference for promising young professors at Yale University. We were a small group of 15 ambitious, driven faculty in various fields. This group had been hand-picked by our department chairs to attend an elitist consulting seminar by a firm specializing in helping professors launch our academic careers to change the world (or at least secure lucrative funding and publish a few papers along the way).

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At the end of the conference, we were asked to share openly our hopes, dreams, and visions—no matter how grandiose—for our careers. At first there was the usual humble hesitance. But then some of us started to open up. One woman aspired to win the Nobel Prize. Another wanted to become a university dean.

This led me to reflect on what leads us to do the things we do. Why are many of us so driven to achieve? There’s an assumption that, through accolades and achievement, we will experience a measure of reward and satisfaction. The problem is that our assumptions are sometimes faulty. In this context, there is a powerful but under-appreciated principle in psychology known as affective forecasting. This is the ability to predict how we will feel in a given situation. It turns out that humans are really terrible at this. Which means, unfortunately, that we are very bad at predicting what will make us happy.

A classic study from the 1970s—with the provocative title “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims”—drives this point home. The researchers from this study conducted detailed assessments of two very different groups of people: those who had won the lottery and those who had become paraplegic through terrible accidents. If someone were to ask you which group you would rather be a part of, you would obviously pick the lottery winners. Why? Because you immediately envision yourself much happier in the life of a lottery winner than an accident victim. But surprisingly, in terms of their abilities to enjoy everyday pleasures, there was no difference between the lottery winners and the accident victims. If anything, the lottery winners had a bit less ability to enjoy things (though this difference wasn’t statistically significant). This is because of something psychologists call hedonic adaptation, which can work in our favor and to our detriment. Hedonic adaptation basically means that, for so many of the activities we engage in, after a brief period of time, our happiness setpoint will adjust right back to where it was originally. In a sense, this is a cruel twist of fate, a maddening happiness treadmill, which portrays us as if we were hamsters running on a wheel, forever destined to toil away with no enduring reward or satisfaction.

On the face of it, the principle of hedonic adaptation can be discouraging. Mick Jagger wrote the song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” As author and academic Arthur Brooks has pointed out, the psychologically accurate version would be “I Can’t Keep No Satisfaction.” But hedonic adaptation can also be a good thing because it means that we can adapt to adverse circumstances and still be relatively happy. (When asked about general happiness, the accident victims reported that they were, on average, more happy than unhappy.)

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Here’s another piece of good news. There’s one critical exception to the hedonic adaptation rule: relationships. A warm and nurturing relationship really can elevate the happiness setpoint in an enduring way. As, Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers of this area has phrased it, good relationships “are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.” In fact, good relationships not only make us happier, but they also make us healthier and help us live longer. There’s now good data that loneliness (the opposite of having good relationships) is as harmful to physical health as obesity or cigarette smoking.

Not all relationships are created equal, however. In-person relationships seem to be the gold-standard. (Most of us remember from the days of pandemic lockdown that we yearned for in-person interaction in a way that we had never before experienced.) The reason why social media can be so damaging to mental health is because it mimics the traditional relationship without providing the enduring satisfaction. In a way, social media is like relationship junk food; it tastes good but has no lasting nutritional value.

So, for those who are driven to achieve, like my colleagues who aspire to win a Nobel Prize, it’s important to be realistic about how achievement will actually affect our happiness and well-being. Winning a big prize, or even the lottery, will elevate our happiness. But the effects wear off, usually in a few weeks or months. And if we’re not careful, the drive for achievement can hurt our personal relationships. “Striving for … status,” the late Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi once wrote, “ultimately proves empty and frustrating if gained at the sacrifice of these relationships.”

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