In the summer of 2016, Kevin Martin was living in Austin, Texas eating terribly, drinking too much and generally feeling bad about himself. To get out of this funk, a friend suggested that Martin sign up to climb Mount Rainier. “I’d been interested in the idea of climbing a big mountain since I was a teenager,” the 33-year-old tells me. And as tough as the trek was both mentally and physically, he felt a sense of pride and happiness from the three-day journey — a feeling he assumed would last for some time.
But when he returned to Austin, Martin felt completely deflated. “It was a lot easier to skip the gym for happy hour,” he says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but removing this large goal from my life resulted in a short bout of being depressed.”
Whether it’s climbing a mountain, working toward a promotion or finishing a creative project, the comedown from hitting our goals can be surprisingly rough. According to psychiatrist Hong Yin, as we work to achieve something big over time, “we get a nice release of dopamine — that feel-good, energizing, activating substance,” she explains. “We get a little reward and positive feedback, and it motivates us, rightfully reinforcing us to keep going. There’s an exciting anticipation.” So when you finally finish that big thing — recording your album, running a marathon, passing the bar — you get one last blast of dopamine. “Initially, there’s often a honeymoon period and a feeling of satisfaction,” Yin says. But that final hit can feel pretty short-lived after all your efforts to get there.
Tal Ben-Shahar, author and positive psychology lecturer at Harvard University, referred to this strangely specific feeling as the “arrival fallacy,” or the “illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness,” he told the New York Times.
Although there are very obvious hormonal differences, therapists like Laurel Roberts-Meese compare post-achievement depression to postpartum depression. But instead of having a baby to raise, there’s an inescapable sense of “now what”? Or as Roberts-Meese puts it, once you hit your goal, “you lose the anchor and driving force that was motivating you, creating a vacuum for your energy and a lack of direction for your efforts and intentions,” she tells me. “High achievers often have no idea how to respond to this void, and it can lead to palpable depression.”
Roberts-Meese has personal experience with this as well. After a decade of preparing to be a licensed marriage and family therapist — which included grad school, a clinical practicum and a “monster of a licensure exam” — she finally reached her goal. But instead of celebrating with family and friends, “I sat in the parking lot sobbing because I didn’t suddenly molt into a better therapist or happier person. I was still me. I felt depressed for a good month afterward.”
In her clinical work, Roberts-Meese often sees individuals cope with this feeling by moving onto the next big goal, which is exactly what Martin did. “I signed up to climb the Grand Teton within three days of completing Mount Rainier,” he says. “I needed a big objective in my life and something to get me out of bed in the morning.”
It’s been five years since his first climb, and now Martin allows himself about 24 hours to celebrate his accomplishments before moving onto his next goal. He’s currently training for a 50-mile ultramarathon in December, despite only starting to run regularly about a year ago. And while chasing goals with more goals works for him, experts warn that this can lead others to burn out or feel even more depressed.
Instead, Roberts-Meese recommends “sitting mindfully with the discomfort and sadness of not having the goal or milestone to look forward to rather than trying to move past it so quickly.” She also suggests prioritizing rest and other forms of self-care during such recovery periods, typically a few weeks to a month, before brainstorming what your next meaningful goal might be.
Yin recommends much the same. Especially when reflecting on your accomplishment, she says you should be sure to ask yourself the following questions: What is the work toward your achievement really about? What drives you and continues to propel you? What are your passions? How can they continue to be exercised? And what do you like doing for the sake of doing, no promised actual gains?
The answers should help you determine what really makes you happy — rather than chasing achievements to avoid feeling bad. At the very least, you’ll be better equipped for the next accomplishment, as well as the inevitable comedown afterwards. Or as Yin puts it, “Basically, we’re looking to continue to maintain a sense of meaning, purpose and activity in our lives — more learning, more discovery and a healthy dose of novelty.”
Looking inward might feel uncomfortable at first, but it can’t be any worse than actually climbing a mountain.