The Arrival Fallacy: When Emptiness Follows Accomplishment

Image of a trophy with confetti exploding from it to illustrate the arrival fallacy.

“I don’t understand why I’m not happy.” That is a common refrain I hear from self-described high achievers and is often the first clue that they might be experiencing arrival fallacy. 

The story is all too familiar. You set an ambitious goal, and through determination and sacrifice, you attain it. But once the initial thrill wears off, you feel emptiness and disappointment. The target of your ambition was meant to lead to something better, yet you can barely remember what you expected.

Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

What is the Arrival Fallacy?

Coined by psychologist Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, the term arrival fallacy refers to the belief that attaining a particular goal will lead to long-term happiness. So, the most important thing to understand is that this belief is not grounded in reality. 

Setting goals and motivating yourself to do the work required to attain them can be a positive development. After all, there are many benefits to achieving a goal, especially if it encourages “good” habits, such as the exercise and healthy eating required to complete a marathon. 

However, once we have crossed the finish line and the blisters on our feet heal, we are confronted with the question, “What’s next?” Do we take some time to celebrate the accomplishment, or do we immediately begin to train for the next marathon?

How Does the Arrival Fallacy Affect Us?

The trouble with the arrival fallacy is that it leaves us with a lack of purpose or, worse, we feel unsatisfied when we reach our destination, so we try to fill the void with more ambitious targets. Unfortunately, that can result in a never-ending cycle. We choose a new mountain to conquer – reaching for the next promotion or a new degree to earn, leading to new challenges and, ultimately, more emptiness. 

I liken it to being on a hamster wheel that keeps spinning faster and faster the more we run, yet despite all the effort we exert, we feel stuck in place so that the phenomenon of arrival fallacy eventually sparks an existential crisis. As we sort through these feelings, we question our sense of self, decisions, and worth. 

But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. On the contrary, you can interrupt this cycle of pursuing achievements that leave you feeling empty by understanding the circumstances in our social systems that exacerbate the arrival fallacy. Then, you can develop strategies for overcoming them. 

An Example of the Arrival Fallacy

Hamster on a hamster wheel to illustrate the feeling of being stuck in place, like the arrival fallacy feeling.

A few years ago, I met with “Caleb,” who had achieved a hard-won promotion to vice president in his group. He had been passed over once before and vowed not to let the opportunity pass a second time. So, he worked himself and his team relentlessly, doubling their revenue and bringing in more partnership opportunities while telling himself, “When I get this promotion, I’ll be happy.” 

When the promotion committee met during the next cycle, they were impressed, and Caleb was thrilled when he received the news that he had reached his goal.

Then the Bubble Burst

As Caleb began to settle into his new “dream” title, he began to feel like something was missing. He had labored under the belief that the new title would help him reach lasting happiness. He thought it would shape him for the better and that he would garner newfound respect that he didn’t have before. Yet he came to the uncomfortable realization that he was still the same person he was a few months earlier. 

He also didn’t anticipate that his singular focus on attaining the promotion would have unintended consequences. His team was burned out, and morale was low. In addition, his relationship with his family had frayed due to the lack of quality time. 

And then there was the job itself. He had the same responsibilities, but now he was exposed to the messy political battles fought at his level and realized he hated the posturing. On top of that, senior leadership now had sky-high expectations of his exhausted team, so they were under pressure to do even more.

When we met, Caleb was confused and angry – confused that the reality of the role was so far removed from what he envisioned and mad at himself for believing that the title would transform his life for the better. 

Doing the Work

We examined the beliefs that contributed to Caleb’s arrival fallacy experience and realized that it resulted from a value system formed throughout his life. First, his family and community, rooted in a hierarchical culture, believed that important titles were bestowed upon special people who deserved them. Then his educational experience reinforced that belief suggesting that although on the surface, a person’s title represents respect, at a deeper level, it was also a validation of that person’s work and sacrifice. 

The Aha Moment

During a moment of reflection, Caleb realized that when he was passed up for promotion, it called his value system into question. Someone else he felt was less deserving ended up being promoted, so he felt compelled to set things right and do whatever it took to earn that validation and acknowledgment of his efforts. 

We also mapped out the cycle he had created for himself. He realized that anytime he experienced a lull after an achievement, he would avoid it at all costs. Within hours after attaining a goal or reaching a milestone, he would set his sights on a bigger dream. 

That moment was a turning point for Caleb. We began examining and challenging his view of what it meant to be successful. He gained clarity around the elements of his role that brought fulfillment and developed strategies for navigating the sticky political situations that drained him. 

By questioning his old definition of success and introducing new ways of thinking about his career in the context of his whole life, Caleb was able to interrupt the never-ending cycle of arrival fallacy.

While Caleb’s example is about the arrival fallacy cycle we create for ourselves in work, this can happen in any aspect of our life. Some examples: 

  • You get married (where’s the happily ever after?)
  • You have kids (why is it so hard?)
  • You become an empty nester (what is my purpose now?)

Why Do We Fall Prey to the Arrival Fallacy?

A post it note with the words "what's next" on it, to illustrate the arrival fallacy.

Two significant drivers of arrival fallacy work in concert with each other: the messages we get from the external world, which in turn, influence how we internalize those messages. 

For example, when the world sends us the message that we can measure success by the level of engagement with our social media posts, that influences how much satisfaction we get from every “like,” “bonus,” or “badge.” Those external motivators create short-term dopamine hits, which dissipate and leave a void so that we quickly begin seeking our next reward. 

Many social systems also heavily emphasize “achievement” as a marker of success when, in reality, test scores and job titles do little to drive fulfillment. Moreover, when social systems reward achievement, it links it with belonging, a fundamental behavior driver. 

When we receive these messages from the outside world, we filter them through the lens of our identity and internalize the messages as truths. As a result, we begin to conflate achievement and fulfillment with validation from the outside world. Our thinking begins to narrow, and we start making unconscious estimations of what will bring us happiness in life based on an achievement’s potential positive outcomes. Yet we do so without fully understanding what will happen when we attain our goal. 

Before long, our decision-making becomes a series of “if-then” statements (If I achieve this, then I will be happy.). When we fall prey to this fallacious thinking, we feel empty and disappointed every time we attain something, only to be confronted with unintended consequences or a reality that doesn’t meet our expectations. 

That kicks off the cycle of pursuing the successive win, followed by a sense of emptiness that will continue until we disrupt the process. 

How Can We Overcome Arrival Fallacy?

How do we disrupt the cycle we spent years cultivating? First, by challenging our thinking and motivations, then by using what we learn to make meaningful life changes. Here are some tips to get you started: 

  1. Lead with why. Before beginning your next journey, ask yourself, “Why is this particular goal important to you?” 
  2. Disrupt “if-then” thinking. Be mindful of statements beginning with “if,” and start observing what comes after “then.”
  3. Question the motivation behind your goals. Be intentional and honest with yourself about the reasoning behind your ambitions. 
  4. Consider your sense of connection to other people. Achievement doesn’t equal happiness. To be “happy,” most of us need to invest in our relationships with others and pursue something that will leave us feeling fulfilled and engaged in our lifelong journey. 
  5. Give yourself the gift of the pause. Commit to giving yourself adequate time to reflect and celebrate what you have done before asking what’s next. 
  6. Pursue and achieve a small goal without telling anyone. Then ask yourself how that felt and what your experience means about your motivations. 

Download this worksheet for additional information about these tips to help you rewrite your narrative and seek fulfillment, not achievement.

But make sure you build in some time to reflect on these questions thoroughly. Remember that this is a process and that you form your beliefs and motivations over years, if not decades. So it is essential to give it the intention it deserves. 

Understanding the Arrival Fallacy: Key Takeaways

On the surface, pursuing things in life can be positive. But when attaining a goal is immediately followed by a feeling of emptiness and pressure to embark on another one, you may have fallen into a cycle driven by the arrival fallacy. Of course, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, but your constant quests could damage your relationships and leave you unfulfilled.

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About the Author

Picture of Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C., is the founder of Exceptional Futures, a provider of frameworks that help people tap into the power of their cultural identities to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Victoria is on the teaching faculty at Duke University and earned her doctoral degree in Global Leadership from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree in Psychology from Santa Clara University, and a master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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