Last week I launched my first website. It should have been a huge achievement and there should have been fireworks and champagne, the inanimate objects in my flat should have serenaded my victory like your standard Disney movie. But it was not like that. The project was done and I had other pressing matters (like finding my next project!).
Jonathan Haidt describes the exact same reaction in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. The actual act of completion is less rewarding than the journey there. It’s in the short bursts of challenge and growing skill where the true joy lies.
The theory behind this is known as the progress principle and is based on how reinforcement (think Pavlov’s dogs) works. Our brains understand a short burst of reward immediately after an action. It provides a distinct feeling of success that you want to keep on chasing. Working on projects is always most rewarding while you are making small advances towards completion.
Any relief you may feel when a project is finished is fleeting because the brain is unable to provide immediate reward for something that was started months or weeks ago. It will most likely provide a ‘meh’ at the fact that you just sent that final email or that a client just officially launched something that was already built. Also, any prolonged exposure to the reward chemical dopamine only makes the brain adapt and it will become the new normal.
So, looking at life with this new perspective, maybe it is the everyday grind that matters the most and not what you produced in the end. What if your legacy is not that important and the reward was in the many small everyday steps towards the goal?