The Science Of Goals: Never Enough?

accomplishing goalsLike most people, I rarely accomplish absolutely everything on my daily to-do list. But over the years, I have a good track record when it comes to hitting big goals. College at Stanford, doctorhood, starting my own practice, welcoming my son Grant, writing…. Looking back, it seems like a lot of hard work and a bit of serendipity.

There’s a dark side to all that “achievement” though. I bet you’ve experienced it, too. It’s the realization that all of the “good feelings” that rush in once you’ve accomplished a big goal usually don’t last long. And you might be wondering, why? Why don’t achievement and contentment always go hand-in-hand?

The answer is wrapped up in everyone’s favorite neurotransmitter: dopamine. Dopamine is affectionately called “The Love Drug,” because it creates that feeling of euphoria, possibility, intense motivation and infatuation that you feel when you’re, well … falling in love!

Dopamine activates the reward pathway. If you attain the object of your desire, whether it be a mate or a promotion, dopamine is released into our brains and we feel good. Dopamine acts as a motivator by creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is focused, learning and motivated. Maybe this is why I like to go to conferences so much!

When you’re in the early stages of tackling an exciting new goal, you experience a serious dopamine rush. You might find yourself thinking, “I could stay up all night working on this!” and, “Oh wow, I’ve never been more energized about a project in my life!”

But your body can’t sustain that level of dopamine forever — and at a certain point, the dopamine naturally starts to drop off. You might interpret this “drop off” as feeling “sad” or “bored” or “unfulfilled,” but in reality, it’s just your body’s way of leveling itself out. Just like the honeymoon doesn’t last forever, even for happily married couples.

I remember the thrill of starting medical school, but many hard nights that made me wonder about my career choice. But, I persevered, not always happily, but somehow motivated to go on. I just tried to take it a day at a time.

It turns out that “a day at a time” might be the key. I had a big vision, but unconsciously set up a series of small victories, by accomplishing my at least a few of my daily to-do’s and showing up. It was never perfect, and never seemed like I could do enough. But over time, these small wins translated into degrees, a career, a building and a family. I got little boosts of dopamine over time, so that I di
dn’t stay in the state of anxiety, uncertainty or fear for very long,

So, the next time you feel bummed after achieving a goal, big or small, just remind yourself: “There’s nothing wrong with me. What I’m feeling is just my body, leveling itself out. Thanks, brain!”

And continue to look with kind eyes toward your big vision, and set some small goals as milestones to enjoy along the way. Our brains love to celebrate with dopamine. Understanding how it works goes a long way toward mixing achievement with contentment.

What’s the biggest goal you’ve ever accomplished? And how did you feel once it was complete?