It’s the ubiquitous mantra of American culture: “Never give up on your dreams!” sometimes this is a wise truth, but never giving up also holds the person hostage in a state of underachievement and incompletion, which over time can become stressful, worrying, and unhealthy. The simple fact is that for every person that makes it to the big league or Madison square garden, there are hundreds of thousands who might have wanted it just as much, tried just as hard, and never even gotten close.
There is nothing inherently wrong with persistently chasing your dream. In fact, individuals with relentless commitment to this chase makes progress possible. History is full of dreamers who never gave up and finally, after being hit by every setback imaginable, found triumph. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb on his first try. Nor on his 100th, but eventually he got it right. But when you start making the complete accomplishment of that dream your measuring stick for your own personal success, happiness, and value as a human being, you’re setting yourself up for ongoing misery and low self-esteem.
Studies have consistently shown that people with simple and achievable ambitions are happier, feel more successful and have higher self-esteem than those who aspire to accomplish very difficult tasks. Jon, the man who finishes a letter to his mother is likely happier than Tanya, the woman who tries without luck to write a bestseller, even though she no doubt has the distinction of calling herself a published author. Unfortunately, she set her “I’ll be happy when” point at a level that very few people ever achieve, making it unlikely to ever be reached.
While Tanya is lost in lament, Jon is basking in the small but real joy of having set a goal and accomplished it. Sure, his goal was puny compared to hers, but would you rather be a happy man with a letter or a miserable woman with a book?
When it’s ok to chase the Wind
If this all sounds depressing that’s because it is. Maybe it reminds you of when you found out Santa wasn’t real—a moment when the firm ground of truth beneath your feet decays into mush. I apologize for this, but the story’s not finished! And it has a happy ending.
Dream’s are an expression of hope, and hope is medicine for the mind, but what separates healthy ambitions from destructive ones is not only the ambition itself but also how we orient ourselves to it. The problems arise when we see it as a race in which you will have “won” just as soon as you can get to that finish line, whatever it may be. Unfortunately psychology tells us that human beings, the highly flexible creatures we are, quickly habituate to new gains. Studies of people who won millions in the lottery find that after a short bump in happiness, within 6 months they are back to their original levels of happiness…and unhappiness.
There’s even a term for this tendency, “hedonic adaptation” and it seems to permeate most areas of life. If achieving our dreams and goals doesn’t make us that happy, why even pursue them? Because, as they say, “the thrill is in the hunt.” Those who not only pursue dreams but also enjoy themselves are those who learn to value the PROCESS. They are the ones who recognize the potential joy in the act of doing rather than just focusing on the glory of having done.
Process is king because life is nothing but process. There is never a point where you are done…until you really are done. Knowing this, how you chose to orient your thinking and behavior makes all the difference. If you approach it as a never-ending flow of errands and tasks that must be waded through before you finally can walk through the doors of achievement, then what you’re saying to yourself is “I accept that I shall waste much of my time doing things I don’t enjoy so that I can get to a goal that may never even arrive.” Is that honestly how you want to spend your few precious years on earth?
How: Knowing what you’re reaching for is the easy part, knowing if you should be reaching for it is a bit harder to decide. To help you get there, take out a single sheet of paper and list your dream at the top. Below that, write why you care so much about getting it—why would it make you happy? How would it change your life for the better? Once you’ve done this, think of how achieving your dream might change your life for the worse—what would be the costs of having your goal? Less time with friends or family? More pressure to maintain that level of achievement? Write it down in the next blank section. Now write down what are the costs of pursuing the dream as you are now? These could be emotional, physical, social, mental, financial, etc. Finally, ask yourself “what would be the result if I never reach this goal?” write it down.
With these considerations in place, review whether you still feel as drawn to your dream as you did before. Maybe you do, which might indicate it’s a healthy pursuit or one that you truly enjoy even without necessarily reaching the end goal. But if you’re starting to question how much you want it, this could indicate it’s not worth the pain and pressure of constantly striving.
Savoring the experience
If you really do feel a sincere attachment to your dream, then go for it. But enjoy the ride along the way. Answer the following questions to start enjoying the process like it should be.
Think about the steps necessary to reaching your dream. Do you enjoy any of these? Why? Could you appreciate them more?
Of the actions you don’t currently enjoy, how could you find some fun in them? This is a very helpful drill to gain perspective: Even though you don’t really like it, somewhere in the world there is someone who adores it, guaranteed. Consider what this person might see in the action that gives them so much joy. Can you incorporate that mindset into your routine at all?
Next time you’re working toward your dream, stop and ask yourself “am I enjoying this?” You will only have one chance to live that moment–and every other moment– so why not have a good time?