Oscar season and election season are both upon us and so is the guessing game of who will win. Why do we love watching these events unfold—and why are we ourselves so drawn to winning?
More than the win, it’s the chase that gives us the thrill. While “the chase” may look different for different people (buying lottery tickets, shopping at sales, entering contests, or applying for new jobs), we all do it. Think of the moment when a presenter is about to announce the winning actress. The room is silent in anticipation and excitement. Just like when we’re waiting for the ballots to come in with the news of who won a nomination.
We experience what researchers call “anticipatory joy”—the pleasure of anticipating a desired outcome or object.
Our Brain on Winning
The father of positive psychology, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, explains in his book Authentic Happiness why we fall prey to anticipatory joy. He tells the story of a pet lizard who was starving to death because it refused to be fed. However, one day when its owner was one day eating a sandwich, the lizard pounced on it. The lizard preferred starving to death to being deprived of the experience of chasing and capturing its own food. Other animals, like cats, release dopamine in pursuit of a mouse or toy. From an evolutionary perspective, both animals and humans are evolved to experience anticipatory joy, presumably for our survival through the pursuit of food sources. It may also have ensured our reproduction as a species through pursuit of sexual partners—and may very well explain what makes hard-to-get partners so attractive.
Stanford University’s Brian Knutson has conducted elegant brain-imaging studies examining this tendency. He noticed that just looking at a desirable object activates neural signals associated with the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter which signals reward) in the brain. Say you are looking at a piece of chocolate. You don’t just derive joy from consuming it—just looking at it and anticipating it stimulates reward in your brain.
How We Get Hooked
Anticipatory joy is what keeps us hooked to seeking out awards, promotions, achievements, rewards, and trophies. Emory University Professor Michael Treadway has demonstrated that overachievers and “go-getters” release greater amounts of dopamine in reward areas of the brain—presumably giving them an even greater “high” when they get things done.
However, our love of pursuit can sometimes blind us to its dangers. Many people don’t stop to think about whether their “win” will be worth it. We get that short burst of joy—a short “high.” But it’s a high that doesn’t last. This is the reason why, when we finally get the prize or award, we are left hungry for more. We start chasing something else. This may be why we have successful “serial entrepreneurs” and Olympians who keep going back for more. You made it big, so what are you going to do now? Keep going.
We have come to believe the joy is in accomplishing and winning, over and over. That chase keeps us motivated; it keeps us running. The problem is that it often makes us run past our own life, happiness, and health—a moment of intimacy lost by a desire to get up and keep working; a sweet moment with a child sacrificed for a work phone call that may lead to something; a good night’s sleep forsaken so you can finish that important project.
How to Make the Best of Our Fire of Desire
Why aren’t we fulfilled and contented when we reach our goals? Harvard professor Dan Gilbert demonstrates that we often have misconceptions about what will make us happy. In particular, we tend to grossly overestimate how happy an achievement or object will make us. Moreover, our anticipatory joy itself deceives us, as we fall prey to one of two psychological phenomena. The first is habituation—we get used to what we have. So you got a promotion and you’re now a Managing Director or CEO. While you may have been ecstatic about the promotion at first, it’s soon no longer special anymore and you now want something more. The second is the negativity bias—our tendency to focus on the negative. All of a sudden, the award you got isn’t good enough, the job you have is no longer exciting or interesting enough, or you don’t like your boss. We soon forget the positive attributes of what we have—precisely the attributes we once chased.
Our chase for awards, the need many have to be “the best,” and our illusion that our life is incomplete is like the chase of a dehydrated person running after a mirage in the desert. It’s an illusion. It cannot quench your thirst for happiness, for fulfillment. Yet in many cases, the chase runs your life. You overwork, you overachieve, you overexercise, you overdiet, you overspend.
The good news is that you can make the best of anticipatory joy, as long as you don’t let it run your life. After all, anticipatory joy helps us achieve challenging goals by providing us with the grit and willpower we need. We enjoy chasing our dreams. Research shows that we also value things more if we have worked for them. Learn to use it as a tool rather than having it drive you. Learn to calm its hold on you when it is not serving you. Research shows that practices like meditation can help strengthen your emotional control and give you a broader perspective.
Happiness researchers agree that the key to long-term happiness—not the short-lived kind that gives you a brief high, like an award or achievement—lies in personal relationships and social connection. After food and shelter, what we most need for a fulfilled life is each other—and our greatest feelings of fulfillment come from engaging in altruistic action and compassion.
Originally posted on Psychology Today on February 22nd, 2016.
Adapted from The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.