Updated: May 6
Arrival fallacy is the illusion that once we obtain our goal or reach our destination, we will finally be happy. The term arrival fallacy was credited to psychologist Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. In his book “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” he writes that arrival fallacy is the false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.
I think many of us who've taken this path to becoming a physician have fallen into the trap of arrival fallacy at some point or another. During the process of applying for medical school, we may feel anxious or nervous. We think life will be great when we actually get into medical school. And it is great! Only 7% of people who apply to medical school actually get in so it is actually quite an accomplishment to get into medical school.
The way my medical school started was with a white coat ceremony. I was proud to wear that white coat and thought I was embarking on an incredible journey. Then there were two years of intense study of physiology and biochemistry. As first and second year medical students, we talk about how it will be better when we are in the third year and are actually spending most of our time seeing patients. We think it will be closer to what we actually want to do.
Then we get to third year and we are at the bottom of the totem pole. Even the nurses boss us around. We start thinking that we can’t wait to graduate. Even though residency is a lot of work, it will be better in residency when we are “real doctors.” Graduation day comes, and it is exciting. I was really happy on graduation day. I was really proud of my accomplishments. It’s not that these things don’t bring happiness, but it’s not lasting happiness. Soon, you settle into the new norm and that becomes your baseline.
As a resident, we work long hours and generally feel a lack of appreciation. I remember the times when patients didn't want a resident to be involved in their care. So of course, we start thinking it will be so much better once we’re an attending physician. We’ll make so much more money and no longer be a trainee. We’ll finally get respect.
As an attending, things do seem great at first. But that becomes your new baseline. I think you get the point. You may start thinking life will be better when I'm married or when you finally have kids. Life will be better when you have that big beautiful house or that luxury car you have always wanted. Life will be better when the student loans are paid off. Life will be great once you’ve finally obtained financial freedom. Then you can do anything you want.
But if you are always waiting for some goal or some accomplishment or some status to actually be happy, then you are missing out on the journey of life. I’m not saying you won’t feel happy when you reach those goals or get those things, but that’s not really the recipe for long lasting life satisfaction. We want to find more happiness on the journey, not just when we reach the destination.
How can we be more happy? The great thing is that happiness is available to all of us now and it's really our thoughts that make us happy.
One thing that can help with happiness is the practice of gratitude. Now I know what you're thinking, but wait, hear me out.
Here is an example of how mindset can change how much happiness you have in your life. Think of coming home to a pile of mail with several bills. You’re thinking, “everyone just wants my money.” Paying bills is generally not something people are happy about. But let’s turn that around.
You have the water bill and it’s $35. Think what you got with that $35. You have clean, drinking water that comes out of the faucet. You can shower with hot water and great water pressure. You have a toilet that flushes waste away so you never have to touch it. These are things that not all people have. What if the water company was no longer willing to sell you water? Suddenly, you’d probably offer to pay twice as much. That $35 seems like a bargain for what you are getting. Think about how much you would pay to not have to go to a well for water, or even to not have to boil your water for 20 min before you drink it.
When you put that into perspective, you may think “I am happy to pay my water bill because I am happy to have clean drinking water from the tap.” If you can learn to appreciate all those little things in life, then that can bring a little happiness to you day by day.
There are other things you can do to increase the happiness in your life. Focus on developing relationships with other people. Focus on experiences. Put less emphasis on buying or having things to be happy. Spend time with friends and family. Take time for yourself when you need it. Think about what you value and live life more based on those values.
But don’t keep waiting until some day to be happy.