Why You Might Feel Empty After Reaching a Huge Goal

Psychologically speaking, a goal can give us a powerful sense of direction and order. It satisfies the natural desire for something to do, and we can feel good as we progress and check off milestones.


But perhaps more importantly, goals can affect our overall sense of connection and purpose. We assign positive attributes, such as intelligence, perseverance, curiosity, and independence, to being active or engaged in something. All this helps us feel that, when we have work, we also have personal value and a place or role the group. We can even define ourselves by the work. The evidence of this is in how we respond when someone asks what we do for a living. We say, “I am [a doctor, writer, marketer],” connecting a state of being with our job titles, not “I [heal, write, market].”


So what happens when the objective you worked so long and hard for is suddenly behind you? All those links disappear. We can’t define ourselves the way we did before. We suddenly have time we don’t know how to fill. We can’t even periodically look in the mirror and pat ourselves on the back anymore. We question ourselves in a million ways.


And if that all seems too simple, you have neuroscience kicking you in the face while you’re down. The brain releases dopamine, a hormone associated with both motivation and happiness, in anticipation of reward. So when you plan and know you’re going to work for something, you’re in biological position to feel good. Each milestone gives you another dopamine hit, which makes you want to keep going with the job. But when you reach your goal, that release of dopamine drops. It’s harder for you biochemically to have joy.


Grasping that anticipation of reaching your goal can release soothing dopamine, sometimes people also experience what’s known as the arrival fallacy. If you are ridiculously sure you’re going to reach the goal, you essentially can trick your brain into behaving like you’ve already reached the end. The work already seems done or like a mere formality, so dopamine starts to drop off before it otherwise would. Then, when you actually get to the finish line, it doesn’t feel as satisfying. In the worst case scenario, this can lead to you desperately hopping from goal to goal hoping something, anything, will make you really happy.


That right there is an order of bleak with sides of apathy, disappointment, and emptiness.


Five ways to get going again (and prevent more blues in the future)


1. Come up with lots of baskets.

We usually associate the saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” with money and investment, but it’s true for goals, too. If you have other things you’re working on simultaneously, then when one project or goal gets done, you can switch gears and refocus instead of being empty.

2. Create a sequence.

If time or logistics means you can’t invest in multiple, simultaneous projects, set out a logical sequence for what’s going to follow your current work. You’ll learn to mentally associate the end of the initial project with the start of the next, so that concluding the beginning work feels more like a milestone rather than total termination. Do what you can to make the transition between the projects as smooth as possible, such as gathering supplies or information as soon as you can.

3. Pause and reflect.

Sometimes when you finish something big and you don’t really have any other goals, you can get overwhelmed wondering if you’ve peaked, or if the time you spent was worthwhile. Take the time to look back and identify what you learned or how you grew. Be specific about what you appreciated (or didn’t) about the experience. Then, take your growth and learning list and come up with a way to apply your new knowledge or skills. The idea, as with sequencing above, is to clarify that there’s a link from the past to your future.

4. Take some time to find you.

Yes, the goal you had was part of you. But just one part. If you’ve overly focused on the objective, you’ve probably gotten out of touch with other parts of your identity. Think about the principles you believe in, what you’d do if you never had to work again, or when you feel the most excited.

5. Mentor.

Generativity is the psychological idea that you’ll pass on what you’ve learned to someone else so they can achieve like you did. When you mentor after a big goal and share your insights, it’s easier to feel like the work will be lasting and have a real influence.


Article by Wanda Thibodeaux for Inc / 2018

Picture by Amirali Mirhashemian (CC0)