Dealing with Post-Achievement Depression

Recently, I completed hiking the 900-kilometer Bruce Trail in Ontario. I had wanted to hike this trail for a long time, ever since I was a boy, but never prioritized it within my busy work and family life.

But now I’ve hiked it. The goal is achieved.

You’d think I would be jumping for joy, but I’m not. In fact, I’m feeling a little blue.

Most of us who have achieved a challenging goal have experienced this feeling. There is an incredible dopamine rush as we get close to achieving a lofty goal, and then when it’s accomplished, soon after there’s an emotional letdown. It comes from moving from an exciting, demanding situation to one that is considerably less challenging.
The lofty goal is the drug. The accomplishment of it is the start of the crash.

It seems to me that the loftier and more challenging the goal, the bigger and more intense the letdown afterward. I especially felt this after completing two university undergrad degrees in four years. Just after the final exams, the emotional high was amazing. And then the after-university life sucked for quite a while as I floundered around aimlessly.

But happily, while post-achievement depression isn’t much fun, over time, the sense of gratification and satisfaction from having completed the goal slowly returns. Emphasis on ‘slowly’’.

So what can we do while we are suffering through the crash?

The most common suggestion is that you deal with the depression by getting right back onto the next project. Nothing like another surge of dopamine to deal with the problem. When the drug wears off, why then, just take some more.

And the funny thing is, the strategy works. I know, because I’ve lived much of my working life this way…finish a project, jump into a new one before the depression sets in. Always try to keep the passion alive.

The problem with this pattern, though, is that soon your happiness depends on achieving goals and it’s easy to lose sight of your direction in life.

So while occasionally it makes sense to move onto another project right away, I think there’s another way to address the post-achievement crash. Here are a few steps I’ve been taking recently:

1. Acknowledge the achievement and praise myself. At the end of the day, thru-hiking the Bruce Trail really was a hell of an achievement. It wasn’t a gimme – I really had to earn it. So I took myself out for dinner and a glass of wine and celebrated while reading the accolades of my friends and family on Facebook.

2. Re-evaluate my direction in life. I started by re-listing all of the reasons that I decided on a life of full-travel. I needed to be assured that the goal of completing the Bruce Trail was actually in alignment with my chosen path. Did it achieve something of importance to me – personal growth, learning, renewal of my spirit, challenge, exploration? Happily, yes it did. This exercise alone helped to calm me down. The goal wasn’t achieved just for the sake of the dopamine rush; it really was important to my life path.

3. Reflect on the process itself. Did I really enjoy the journey, or was the destination all that mattered to me? Did I really enjoy the act of hiking every day in solitude? Did I relish the logistical challenges? What did I do well, and what can I improve upon for future projects? It turns out that I love the hiking, but I wasn’t so jazzed about the length of the hike. And as painful as it was, I was forced to admit to myself that I frequently had my mind on the prize at the end, so much so, that I gave up some interesting off-trail mini-adventures in order to finish the goal sooner. I can keep these things in mind for future adventures.

4. Slowly begin planning for the next adventure. And in the planning process, I continue to ensure that the new goal is in alignment with the chosen direction of my life.

I have found these four steps to be quite useful. The intensity of the post-achievement depression is quite mild in comparison to previous accomplishments.

So after your next big success, before you jump right back onto the dopamine-filled, goal-setting and -achieving rollercoaster, I invite you to take a little time and make sure it was all worthwhile and that it ties in nicely with your life path.

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