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Why Achieving Your Goals Doesn’t Feel Like Anything: A Neuroscientific Explanation

You dreamt about it. You planned it. You worked on it. There were triumphs, initial sub-goals met. There were setbacks, life happened. But you persevered. Initially propelled forward by excitement and passion, staying the course through grit and determination. And ultimately, you achieved it. Now what? It sounded almost like an epic. But this is very much what goal achievement is, especially if you set yourself really hardcore long(er)-term goals. They require thinking out, planning and dedication. You’d think that once you’ve been through what can be a grueling process you’d come out feeling victorious. Immensely proud. Invincible. But did you? I know for a fact that I didn’t. I’ve hit fitness milestones, educational milestones, financial milestones. Hell, I finished a PhD and moved to the other side of the world. They were all, at one time, grueling processes to get through and can be described in the epic style outlined above. But I never came out feeling invincible, like I just conquered a beast. And the PhD was a beast… So why is that?

If we focus on the process of goal achievement, and likely as a means to that end, behavioural change, we know that true change is slow and gradual. It’s very much a marathon and not a sprint. It's all about the compounding power of small changes, and maybe those small changes add up in a ‘Gestalt’ type of way in which the whole is larger than just the sum of the parts and it’s difficult to disentangle what bit lead to what result. A lot of health/fitness goals tend to be like this. You know the carrot is better than the donut, but you’re really not entirely sure if it was the carrot stick and hummus dip or the zucchini lasagna that made you shed those last 5 kilos. I digress. What I was going for is the slowness and gradualness of the process. I’ve written before on how passion and motivation are fleeting. They do not persist. Grit and discipline, however, do persist, although they require some training. It’s the latter two that will carry you through the end, if not through the majority of the journey that leads to your goal. When you do reach your goal you will have done so by habit building and perseverance. These aren’t the “yay I did it!” type of feelings. True behavioural change relies on the “new” behaviours integrating into your “old” life, as such they become habits, through (forced) repetition. Once something has become a habit there’s no sense of reward associated with the behaviour anymore. When the “new” behaviour eventually leads to the envisioned goal, the goal has been so ingrained with the habit itself that it doesn’t spark a sense of reward anymore. The goal has been replaced by the process itself. This either sounded super great or super depressing to you. Either way, even if you think you can avoid this “behavioural trap” I’ve got news for you: it’s got a neuroscientific underpinning.

One of my favourite courses in my MSc was neuroeconomics. One of the first things you learn about how the brain influences behaviour is through serotonin and dopamine. And guess what? The latter is key for habit formation. We’re simply not escaping this.

Behaviours become habits if, once upon a time, they were rewarding. People enjoy the way coffee tastes, but also how it makes them feel. They come back for those two types of rewards. People continue to exhibit behaviours that are praised by others. This also activates dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter. People will continue to chase increases in dopamine, because it makes us feel good. It makes us feel rewarded. This is also how a lot of addictions, but substance and behavioural are formed. Now the thing with dopamine is, is that it’s not necessarily the actual experience of reward that makes us produce dopamine. No it’s the anticipation, more specifically, our error in predicting how rewarding something will be. Let me exemplify this. I try ice-skating for the first time. Sure, I’m like Bambi on ice and fall a couple of times but I had a good time. Because I started out with no real idea of whether I’d enjoy it and I actually did, I have a large prediction error, meaning a lot of dopamine. So yes, I feel very rewarded in my ice-skating experience, 10/10 on TripAdvisor. Now if I go ice-skating again, knowing I had a good time last time, and even if I had a good time again, my dopamine production will be much lower, because I predicted it based on my last visit. And so I can keep going again and again, but the more accurate I become in my prediction of my enjoyment, the lower my levels of dopamine production will be. So what started out as a rewarding experience can become a habit if it is repeated often enough chasing that dopamine high. In my case specifically, I did not become a habitual ice-skater. I hated both my experiences on ice. The habit formation outlined above explains why the repeated behaviour required for behaviour change and goal achievement will not produce any dopamine, or feeling of reward, once you achieve your goal. Again, the focus is much more on the process than on the actual goal. And you’re all dopamined out.

Now there is another possible mechanism at play when it comes to dopamine production and goal achievement and I do want to address it as it is slightly different. It’s not process focused at all, it’s actually very goal focused and it relies heavily on visualization and anticipatory utility. You tend to start new behaviours with a goal in mind. You can picture it. Every single time you have to engage with the new behaviour, which is not yet a habit and might not be remotely enjoyable to begin with, you picture the goal. The end result. The lean body, the money sitting in the account, the car, the diploma (I’m picking very tangible goals on purpose). But with that image of your new goal also comes your expectation of how you will feel in that moment. However, by visualizing it, you’re experiencing some of these feelings already. This is known as anticipatory utility: the excitement before the fact. Assuming that you’ve paid attention in the previous paragraph, this imagining how you’ll feel in the moment once you’ve reached your goal, especially how good you’ll feel once you’ve reached your goal, is a killer. Why? Because it ruins your prediction error. The main driver of your dopamine production. Imagine that you’ve imagined reaching your goal time and time again. And then you do. Ironically, it’ll be nothing like you predicted it to be, because you predicted it. All of your anticipatory utility has eaten away at your utility experienced in that very moment. There is no prediction error. There is no additional dopamine release. You feel nothing. And as you feel nothing, whereas you thought you’d feel all the emotions, you might even feel underwhelmed, disappointed. And in the end, maybe even frustrated.

I think this is a surprisingly common outcome for long-term goal achievement. Because you’re working on it for long periods of time, through habit formation and visualization, the immense sense of relief, release, achievement and victory towards the end of what might be years or even decades of work might not be there. But no one really talks about that. Because how on earth are you going to sell long term behavioural change without the reward at the end? As depressing as this sounds, I do think it’s something we should be addressing in the behavioural sciences. Sure, you can start new behaviours and morph them into habits at the start, but as I said, true behaviour change, long term and sustainable behaviour change, relies on grit, determination, discipline and perseverance. And to say otherwise is a lie. So imagine my surprise and frustration when handing in my PhD thesis lead me to feel nothing. Years of work and just, nothing. I expect to feel the exact same when I publish my first journal article and my first book. Years of work and I’ll raise a toast to my grit and determination. And to the process that ultimately lead to a lack of reward. Because that’s how we’re wired. Proost!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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