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The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP #5: The Arrival Fallacy

Someday, when I become a resident, it’ll all be better. I’ll be making money. One day as an attending, things will be so much better than they are right now, no one will be able to tell me what to do. When the kids are a little bit older, things will be easier.

Larry Keller

I’m here to tell you that if you think when you accomplish your next goal, life will automatically be better, you’re likely suffering from an arrival fallacy, if you’ve said any of the above. Here’s how to snap out of the matrix and find the reality you want today.

Today’s thought is this; waiting to live the life you want someday in the future when X, Y, or Z happens is a surefire way to never be content or happy in life. Once you achieve your goal, that mountain top experience is going to fade.

So, you finally did it, after five years of grueling training that resulted in tons of exhaustion, sleepless nights, and a mountain of burnout and student loan debt, you made it, you’re now an attending physician. You have arrived my friend. The light at the end of the tunnel is finally here. Along with that light is a large attending physician paycheck. Life couldn’t be better.

Then six months later, to your surprise, you’re no more happy than when you were as a struggling resident. The big house, the nice cars, the bigger paycheck, they apparently aren’t going to be great sustainers of long-term satisfaction. And it’s really at this point that you have officially experienced what the vast majority of people experience.

The Illusion of Reaching Lasting Happiness

You get there, you have the experience, you finally have the mountain top and it doesn’t last. That feeling fades. It goes away. This is called an arrival fallacy. So, the person that came up with this term is Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. He’s credited with creating the term; arrival fallacy. And this is the way he describes it in a New York Times piece. He basically says, “Arrival fallacy is the illusion that once we make it and once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” And I don’t have to tell you and neither does he, that that is an experience that most of us have had.

So the question is, why does that happen? Why when we finish medical school is residency not enough? Why is being an attending physician not enough? Why do we constantly have these moments in life where we get to the mountain top and then we’re suddenly in a Valley, six months later back where we were before the mountain top experience?

The biggest reason is that we are not very good at forecasting our happiness. What I mean by this is that we are not adept at predicting what will make us happy in life. And if you don’t believe me, I’m a big believer that if you don’t know what someone values, then you just need to follow their wallet. Your bank account very much tells you what you value in this life.

We Spend Money On What Matters to Us

We spend money on things rather than experiences, right? So we buy the house. We buy the cars, even though we know that science says that you should do the opposite. We know that behavioral finance has shown that longterm satisfaction is better when you spend money on experiences, particularly with those you love and when you buy stuff.

But basically we think something’s going to make us happy and then six months later, it doesn’t make us as happy as we thought it would. That’s one example of the arrival fallacy in everyday life. We give very little of our money, time, skills away to other people who need it. I’m not saying that this is true for everybody, but whenever you feel that way, or whenever you notice that your paycheck isn’t reflecting the charitable giving that you thought you’re going to at the beginning of the year. You get your taxes at the end of the year and you didn’t give as much away as you meant to. That is another example.

Because we know that behavioral finance again says that giving money to other people who are in need or who could use your services is a great way to produce long-term satisfaction. So, why don’t we do that more? Because we think that whatever we spent the money on instead would have made us happy, but it doesn’t. And this is one of the reasons we have a hard time saving for tomorrow, even though financial security provides lots of long-term satisfaction. We spend the money today, even though long term, it would be better because of the media gratification issues that our culture brings and part of being human.

What Do We Need To Be Truly Happy 

In surveys, when people are asked, are you happy with your income? And if not, how much more money would you need in order to be happy? Everybody, regardless of the amount of money they make, whether it’s $10,000 a year, $100,000, $1 million dollars a year will say, “Oh, I mean, if I earned about 15% to 20% more, I would be much happier.” And that just goes to show that we, as people are not good at forecasting, our happiness. It’s just not a strength of ours.

And so there’s no surprise when we look back and that mountain top experience, the things we spent money on, all that stuff doesn’t end up making us happy because we do not do a good job of determining what makes us happy. Our experiences in life often tell us the same thing. This is what causes the arrival fallacy. We predict happiness. We take action on the thing we think is going to make us happy and then we find out it didn’t make us happy.

So for any residents that are listening right now, just because you make 60 grand, please do not think that when you finish, you’re just going to be so much happier because you’re making $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 or $500,000 a year. That’s not true. Same thing with houses, with the cars you’ve bought. In fact, I financed the Chevy SS, this dream car that I had, ended up selling it two years later for a truck. So I’ve just had so many arrival fallacies that I’ve experienced in my own life. So when I’m coming at you in this episode, telling you that you don’t know what’s going to make you happy, please understand that I’m telling you that I don’t either. I’m just as bad at this stuff as you are.

How Do We Fix The Arrival Fallacy 

So how do we deal with this? Great Jimmy, you’ve just pointed out that I’m never going to be able to predict how I’m going to be happy. I’m doomed. I’m never going to be happy in my life. Thank you for making me depressed. Well, that’s not actually the target or the goal of this episode. So, let’s talk about some practical application here. How can we deal with an arrival fallacy? How do we deal with preventing this problem, because it is a problem.

If you want to find a way to be really unhappy, keep predicting how and what you need to accomplish in order to become happy and then find out that it doesn’t work. So, let’s deal with this problem your arrival fallacy. Here’s some classic techniques, these are the ones that you hear all the time. But I’m not saying that in a passing way, these are actually pretty helpful.

Learn to Be Content and Practice Gratitude 

Write things that you are thankful for. Things you’re thankful for about your job, things that you’re thankful for about your kids, things that you’re thankful for in your marriage.

Practicing gratitude is a great way to find contentment today. So, write down the things you’re thankful for, and you realize that you have a lot to be thankful for. That is a helpful exercise. So that’s talked about a lot.

Recognize the Longterm Satisfaction That Comes From Relationships 

So, what do I mean by that? Spending quality time with people that you love. Investing in other people. Helping those around you that need help. Giving back to your community.

Those are all ways that it has been shown that long-term satisfaction is going to be a very real goal for you. So those are not arrival fallacy goals. Those are goals that when you create them are going to produce the most long-term satisfaction. So instead of focusing on becoming an attending or buying a house or buying the car or sending your kids to private school or whatever, focus on relationships. That is a great way to find satisfaction.

Avoid the arrival fallacy, stop being terrible at forecasting your happiness and actually spend time with the relationships in front of you.

Have Multiple Simultaneous Goals

Now I just told you that overachieving can be bad. So, don’t look at me cross eyed, I’m not trying to confuse you here. But when that happens, that arrival fallacy, that mountain top experience, one of the reasons why that is so bad, it’s so defeating is because there’s not another mountain top on the horizon. So, if you have multiple simultaneous goals, then that mountain top experience won’t last as long once you start falling down the Hill. You’ll have the next mountain top to experience.

Final Thoughts 

Here’s the point; waiting to live the life you want someday in the future when X, Y, or Z happens is a surefire way to never be content or happy. Once you achieve your goals, that mountain top experience will fade. So, learn to avoid the arrival fallacy by practicing gratitude, by recognizing that relationships are the best way to produce long term satisfaction and to have simultaneous goals that you’re not falling down the hill after that mountain top experience, right?

TPP

3 Comments

  1. PrudentPlasticSurgeon

    This is so spot on. This is the exact thing that led to my “enlightenment.” I assumed everything would just take care of itself when I became at attending. On the brink of finishing training I realized this was not the case which was very disorienting. I had to take control, change my mindset, and reply focus on what made me happy. Taking financial control has been a big part of my story but just as much, if not more, has been the mindset shift that has accompanied my whole life. Really enjoyed seeing it laid out like this.

    Reply
  2. BSM

    Thanks for sharing. We totally agree and this was such a timely post, as my spouse finished up her first full month as an attending!
    I would say we experienced this “arrival fallacy” problem near the end of med school and at the beginning of residency. There was certainly the temptation to yearn for more or compare our situation with others. My spouse began a couple moonlighting side gigs after intern year, which helped us save for retirement and even begin a taxable account. There wasn’t really a dramatic breakthrough all at once… but around our second year, both of us just noticed and began to count our blessings more. We were able to save and max a 403b and two Roths for several years. I think we also finally realized that having good insurance and a solid emergency fund would allow us to weather a storm. We lived comfortably and enjoyed leisure activities and vacations–mainly outdoor adventure type stuff. We made a lot of good memories as a “poor” resident. I think many doctors should remember that many people get by with a lot less. I am often baffled by some forums online where people sure seem to look down on the family making less than six figures.
    Now that we finished our first month, I can say the bump in pay is sure nice. Same with the better hours. But having established a sense of contentment a few years ago just makes it all feel like an added bonus!

    Reply
  3. Quinnja

    Excellent blogpost- words to live by!

    Reply

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