An email from Nick:
I’m turning 38 at the end of May and have a great life. In the last 10 years, I’ve written down numerous goals and have checked them all off, surprising myself along the way. Yet I felt a malaise these past few months and I couldn’t identify it. I thought, “maybe I need to create more goals, new goals.” But nothing really comes to mind. And deep down I don’t believe doing so would alleviate how I feel.
What you talk about, regarding the curve, makes perfect sense, and has provided me with great relief.
Thank you for your work. It’s come at a perfect time in my life.
First comment: You’re welcome! I tried to write the book that I wish I could have read when I was turning 38 and felt exactly the same stirrings of unfounded dissatisfaction that Nick feels.
Second comment: Nick is an example of how just knowing about the U-shaped happiness curve can help allay its effects. Though there’s nothing wrong with setting and pursuing new goals, creating them artificially, and even achieving them, is unlikely to shake off the kind of dissatisfaction Nick seems to be feeling. His disappointment is caused by what he feels is his failure to appreciate his success—not by his failure to achieve success. Weirdly, setting and meeting new goals, while very possibly worthwhile in its own right (I’m not against ambition!), can compound his dissatisfaction by widening the gap between what he has accomplished and how he feels about his accomplishments.
That is the so-called negative feedback trap. It can lead to despair about ever being able to feel fulfilled.
In time it diminishes as age reorients us away from the status chase. Meanwhile, awareness of the trap gives Nick some leverage against it. Knowing that the cause of his dissatisfaction may be inside himself helps prevent wild goose chases and unnecessary self-blame.