If I Can Just Understand the Arrival Fallacy, I’ll Be Happy

The latest ‘gimme’ from the world of social science has, er, arrived. I’m referring to […]

David Zahl / 6.5.19

The latest ‘gimme’ from the world of social science has, er, arrived. I’m referring to the Arrival Fallacy, “the illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” Earlier this week The NY Times devoted a whole column to this familiar dynamic, A.C. Shilton’s “You Accomplished Something Great. So Now What?”

I know, I know, it’s a little elementary — especially if you’ve attended a youth ministry meeting in the last forty-five years or so. Does it really need a fancy name and the pretense that this constitutes some kind of discovery? Probably not, but that doesn’t make the new language any less welcome. Plus, just think of how much more sophisticated (and palatable) you’ll sound when warning your friends of the Arrival Fallacy than, say, the futility of performancistic ladder-climbing or the blackhole of self-justification according to little-l laws of the moment…

Thankfully, there are also a few fresh twists here worth highlighting. For example, over the years more than few folks have wondered how you talk about grace/forgiveness/absolution with those who’ve “never failed at anything.” You know, people for whom things come relatively easily and without a ton of anxiety or complication, who don’t seem to be preoccupied by not-enoughness and have yet to experience any “Big Hurt.” My kneejerk response tends to be: You don’t. Because 1. they [non-neurotic Type A’s] don’t exist and 2. to the extent that they do, that serenity will always be temporary — at least in a world where comparison is so supercharged by technology.

Still, the Arrival Fallacy provides a decent starting point. You don’t have to deny there is in fact a sense of gratification (or enoughness) associated with certain forms of accomplishment — it’s just nowhere near as large or permanent as promised or envisioned:

Dr. Ben-Shahar said arrival fallacy is the reason some Hollywood stars struggle with mental health issues and substance abuse later in life. “These individuals start out unhappy, but they say to themselves, ‘It’s O.K. because when I make it, then I’ll be happy,’” he said. But then they make it, and while they may feel briefly fulfilled, the feeling doesn’t last. “This time, they’re unhappy, but more than that they’re unhappy without hope,” he explained. “Because before they lived under the illusion — well, the false hope — that once they make it, then they’ll be happy.”

[Sidenote: this is also the reason some suicidologists believe that self-harm afflicts the upper tax-brackets in higher proportions.] Shilton continues:

The problem is that achievement doesn’t equal happiness — at least not over the long term. But this isn’t a message that most of us are familiar with. In fact, it’s almost antithetical to the American dream, which tells us that hard work and achievement deliver a happy life. And so we push our children to become captain of the travel soccer squad, a first-chair player in the orchestra and student body president, because we want them to be successful. We want them to be happy.

And then, when they’re 34, fresh off a big achievement and so deeply unhappy that they find themselves sobbing in their truck in a Walmart parking lot (hello again, it’s me), they could end up feeling as though something is inherently broken within them…

She goes on to talk about the tenure process in research universities and how, even among those considered to be most ‘learned’ (i.e. who we might presume would have enough education to know better), getting tenure seldom lives up to expectation vis-à-vis life satisfaction. And that includes social scientists and theologians.

Of course, you don’t have to be an academic to fall prey to the Arrival Fallacy. You could just be someone who writes a book about the mirage of arrival — how the endless, quasi-religious pursuit of enoughness in every arena of modern life is burning us all out — and when the book finally comes out and does better than you expected, you’re psyched for a few weeks but then feel kind of empty. You know, theoretically.

This is where the second twist comes in. The Arrival Fallacy thrives — and by that I mean “wreaks inordinate mental and spiritual havoc” — in cultures which venerate individual autonomy, agency, and ambition, AKA cultures with an inflated anthropology. (In historico-theological terms, it’s almost inseparable from what Christianity Today recently called “The Age of Pelagius.”)

Put differently, the Arrival Fallacy presupposes, and likely perpetuates, the same solipsism on which late-period capitalism turns, #selfisthenewsoul. I mean, what would modern advertising even look like without it?

Anyways, according to the researchers, this does not bode well for our wellbeing:

“The No. 1 predictor of happiness,” [says Dr. Jamie Gruman, a professor at the University of Guelph in Canada] is the “quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. In other words, relationships.” If relationships make us happy, the fact that many of us neglect our relationships in pursuit of career success may further squelch our joy. Focusing on a career at the expense of, say, a marriage, could ultimately leave us feeling lonely and unmoored.

…you should banish any sentences like this: “I’ll be happy if I can just achieve X.” Dr. Gruman recently conducted a study in which he asked participants to rate their desire for happiness. The more they thought about how to make themselves happier, or worried about their happiness levels relative to their peers, the less happy they actually were.

It would appear then that real joy, the kind that’s infectious and contagious, occurs to the extent that our lives are other-focused, i.e. another well-worn and inconvenient truth. I’m reminded of the amazing passage in Acts that was assigned in the lectionary for this past Sunday (16:16-34), in which Paul and Silas are “severely flogged” and imprisoned after exorcizing an unhinged fortune-teller with powerful friends. Once in jail, pretty banged up and incoherent, they start praying and singing hymns of praise to God. A supremely strange move that suggests they interpreted their phenomenally bad day as an opportunity — privilege even! — to witness further to the Gospel. Whatever the case, it’s a miraculous display of faith, and one which understandably captivates their fellow inmates. Anyhow, in the midst of their prayers, there’s an earthquake(!), which causes their chains to fall away, and the doors of each of the cells to open.

But that’s when the real miracle happens. It’s the middle of the night and there’s no electricity, so when the jailor rushes in and sees the wreckage, he assumes that all of the convicts had escaped. This being the Roman Empire, he knows that his life is over. He draws his sword, ready to kill himself, and at that exact moment, hears a voice calling to him from within the darkness. It’s Paul, saying, “Do not harm yourself, friend. You do not need to worry, we are all still here.” Apparently, the other inmates had followed Paul and Silas’ lead when the doors flew open, staying put.

In other words, Paul and Silas put the jailer and his welfare over their mission, even over the miracle itself. They prioritize their enemy (who they call ‘friend’!) over themselves. In doing so, they embody values that are the polar opposite of what the jailer assumed they would be. He, after all, lives in the same world as us, one built on retributive justice (consequences!) and self-interest. Needless to say, this utterly surprising act of grace undoes the jailer, and in an instant he makes the leap from despair to wonder, from devoted enemy to devoted friend. He is converted!

And yet I highly doubt that Paul and Silas stuck around so that the jailer would do what they wanted. Their action was not some conditional strategy resulting from a mental calculation; it was more than likely as spontaneous as the earthquake itself.

What turns a self-seeking, arrival fallacy-obsessed heart into a self-sacrificing one? Surely there’s no formula. But if we take this passage as our guide, then the impetus doesn’t come from within. Because when Paul puts the jailer’s well-being above his own, it’s safe to conclude he is taking his cue from Someone Else who was imprisoned on trumped up charges, who loved his enemies at a dear cost to Himself. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Paul’s instinct was to show his ‘enemy’ the same sort of dramatic love he had been shown while an active enemy of God.

Perhaps that’s how a person transcends the Arrival Fallacy and starts to care about others more than themselves — not by writing a book or a blogpost about these dynamics but by finding themselves on the receiving end of that kind of un-engineered grace.

Not the most marketable approach to happiness, I know, but it sure beats waiting on that new ABBA material to come out.

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13 responses to “If I Can Just Understand the Arrival Fallacy, I’ll Be Happy”

  1. CJ Green says:

    Thanks for this DZ – even though you’ve arrived, I’m glad to see you can still blog good. (And that story from acts is so moving I almost can’t believe it exists…!)

  2. Jim Moore says:

    That last paragraph. Yes, where I live. Not particularly marketable but not expecting much either. The liminal spaces of the never arriving.

  3. Fits wonderfully with the current study I’m conducting on Ecclesiastes – the author would make a perfect case study for this topic!

  4. Chris Dalton says:

    In the 1990’s, as a hopelessly lost alcoholic romantic, I dubbed this phenomenon, “Ignition-Point Faith.”

  5. sean says:

    Ive read 1-2 if any mbird article over the
    last 6 mths or so, if any. But Joshua posted this on fb, and, man…I didnt think id see the day but your
    writing/ministry is even more powerful. 11/10? May need to start reading again. Maybe this time I wont get overwhelmed by the law…

  6. DLE says:

    And yet by all studies I have ever read, those who achieve wealth ARE happier. Perhaps not happier than some arbitrary baseline for happiness, but definitely happier than the rest of us. There is something to be said for living with a money buffer as opposed to living with none.

    With wage stagnation and people working harder than ever just to keep their heads above water, every little bit of arrival helps. It’s hard to be happy when your job is under constant threat of being offshored or given to someone younger, or you’re sick, the medical bills have overwhelmed you (even with insurance), and the bank is repossessing your home.

    That said, as you note, plenty of people who supposedly have everything do end themselves. I think the author of Ecclesiastes would claim the answer is a little bit of arrival and a little bit of wealth, along some good friends, good food, and a bottle on wine, all with thanks to God.

  7. DLE says:

    BTW, nice choice of The Cure’s “Never Enough.” It’s also my song of choice when the worldly demands get overwhelming.

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