The Progress Principle: The Key To Happiness?

Have you ever found yourself in this situation?

You’ve been working on a project, or goal or an important task. It’s taken so much of your time and energy and occupied your mind for days, weeks or months. You can see the finish line, and you think about how amazing it’s going to feel when you finally cross it. The euphoria, the relief, the joy.

But really, that doesn’t happen.

You have a few, beautiful moments of serenity and peace before immediately moving on to the next task, the next step, the next big thing.

Humans aren’t easily satisfied, are they?

We always think that once we complete a difficult goal, we’ll feel complete. But we never do.

This is because the endorphins and happy hormones that get released on completion of something we worked towards only last around three seconds.

You read that right: we get a mere three seconds of elation, then it’s back to the drawing board.

In a way this works to our advantage; imagine if Shakespeare after writing his first play had gone ‘yeah, that’s enough for me’. Never being truly sated is rooted in our evolutionary instincts, as there’s always more food to forage, more mates to be found, more dangers to circumvent.

But in the modern world, this can cause stress, anxiety and even depression. We always feel the need to be productive, to be doing something useful, to be achieving something. We place so much of our value on the completion of tasks and how busy we are. We always need to be chasing something.

So, how do we reconcile the two drives and needs (the need to be productive, and the need to be happy) in a way that takes the stress and anxiety out of the process?

The Progress Principle.

There’s an old saying that goes: “it’s not where you end up, it’s the journey that counts.”

This isn’t applicable all the time, as I’m sure we’d all like to end up somewhere pretty nice. But there is some truth to the statement.

This is because we also get a happy hormone release at a different stage of completing a goal. More accurately, every stage.

Every time we take a step closer to achieving something, every time we make progress, every time we do something that gets us towards the finish line, we get a similar release of hormones as to when we actually cross it.

This is what the progress principle is all about – valuing the journey, and the steps we take. It’s about acknowledging and celebrating the small stuff that takes us towards the big stuff.

We can implement this into our lives by breaking down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps; steps that can be ticked off a list. By measuring our progress, we’ll feel satisfied and happy whenever we do something that takes us closer to an objective, and not just when we achieve the objective itself.

In ancient philosophy, there was a large trend towards the idea that certain things are intrinsically worthwhile, meaning that they should be enjoyed for their own sake, and should not necessarily be tied to any end.

For instance, when it comes to a hobby (writing, reading, painting, etc.) that we may use to reach some other purpose (getting published, being well-read, hanging our work in a gallery), we should change our attitude towards that hobby, and see the fun and pleasure we gain from doing the activity as something good in itself.

Although goals and dreams are good to aim for, and I would strongly advocate having them, viewing them as the be-all and end-all of our lives can take the meaning and the joy out of it.

Loving the process, and loving what you do is what makes us happy in the long-term in a sustained way. Chasing success, prestige and fame is all well and good, but if they are our only pursuits, we will never be satisfied. And that’s a scientific, psychological fact.

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