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Why Instant Gratification is the Villain of Success

Why Instant Gratification is the Villain of Success

Please take a moment to consider some of the greatest creations in human history. I’m referring to magnificent structures like the Eiffel Tower; beautiful paintings like Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”; and heart-wrenching tragedies like William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” If the artists responsible for these works were ruled by instant gratification, do you believe they would have become masters of their craft? Somehow, I doubt it. They probably tried and failed a hundred times before they created art that still inspires people centuries later. Below are three signs your desire for instant gratification is destroying your odds of success.

You think the world owes you something.

Your parents might have raised you to believe you can do anything you set your mind to. They weren’t incorrect in that statement, but they might have left out a relevant detail. You can achieve anything you set your mind to as long as you put in the work that is required. Stephen King’s first hit novel, “Carrie,” got rejected dozens of times before he became a household name.

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J.K. Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” series, received a rejection note that told her “not to quit her day job” before she got published. Michael Jordan wasn’t born with an innate ability to play basketball. He spent years practicing his shot for six hours or more per day before he led the Chicago Bulls to ten NBA championships. If you’re not willing to put forth a high level of effort for a long period of time, then you might be ruled by instant gratification.

You believe you have all the answers.

Excellence requires precision and attention to detail. Self-published authors often dismiss marketing, because they think it is a distraction from writing (and then they wonder why their book didn’t sell better). Managers often dismiss emotional intelligence, because they think it is a distraction from productivity (and then they wonder why their employee turnover isn’t better).

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Personal trainers often dismiss positive psychology, because they think it is a distraction from training sessions (and then they wonder why their client’s compliance isn’t better). Our educational system might have raised you to believe you can be successful as long as you are good at a single thing. I hate to break it to you, but this belief is nothing but a pipe-dream. If you’re not willing to become well-versed in ALL of the subjects excellence requires, then you might be ruled by instant gratification.

You refuse to try things you’re not good at.

I’ve been attending a Pilates class for several months now, because my core strength needs work. My instructor told me she’s thrilled to have a dedicated male in her class. Most other men, she observed, struggle through one class and never come back. I know it’s hard to motivate yourself to do something you’re bad at, but that is the only way you will ever get any better at it.

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A few years ago, I went my first yoga class. I hated it. I couldn’t even reach my ankles in a bent-over stretch, much less my toes. Standing on one foot for balance poses made me so wobbly that I almost fell on my butt. My hips were so tight that I felt embarrassed. Now I love yoga. I can reach past my ankles, past my toes, and touch my palms to the ground. I can stand on one foot confidently, with no fear of falling. I can stretch my hips into positions that I couldn’t have imagined during my first class. Would I have achieved any of those things if I didn’t have enough patience to stick with it? Nope. I’d be just as rigid today as I was before. If you’re not willing to do things you suck at, then you might be ruled by instant gratification.

If it was meant to be easy, everybody would do it. Banish your desire for instant gratification, because it will get you nowhere.

Featured photo credit: I always wanted a happy ending…/Geraint Rowland via flickr.com

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Daniel Wallen

Daniel is a writer who focuses on blogging about happiness and motivation at Lifehack.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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