Do you ever find that you rarely ever reach a feeling of contentment? As if, once you get that raise, promotion, new house, or perfect relationship, you just want more? This may be because we are never, ever done growing, and to be content means that you are no longer striving to be better and thus no longer challenging yourself.
When you aren’t facing challenges, you aren’t growing, and when you aren’t growing, there’s a good chance that you aren’t happy. In fact, neuroscience has shown that it is the act of seeking itself, rather than accomplishing goals, that holds the key to satisfaction. Who knew?
Where Did This Observation Come From?
According to neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp, there are seven core instincts in the human brain: anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking, with seeking being the most important. All mammals have this built-in system of seeking, says Panskepp, and the act of seeking releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, linked to reward and pleasure. This same hormone is released when we do anything that we find pleasurable, and causes the rush that keeps drug addicts hooked. What this means is that animals are being rewarded constantly for exploring their surroundings and seeking out new insight in order to ensure their survival.
In his book Affective Neuroscience, Panskepp details a study where rats were given access to a lever that, when pressed, gives them an electric shock. Contrary to what one would expect, they continuously and willingly electrocuted themselves — not because they find the electrocution pleasurable, but because, as Panskepp explains, “Self-stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed when they worked for this kind of stimulation, instead of being driven by any reward the rats were motivated by the need to seek in itself.”
The Goal Is Not What Gives Us Happiness
This innate desire to seek can help us to make sense of some otherwise outrageous studies, which show that achieving major goals, including winning the lottery, doesn’t cause long-term happiness. The inherent drive to seek more and look ahead in the future does not, in fact, cause a constant state of dissatisfaction, but essentially gives us something to live for, as the act of seeking in itself is a fulfilling activity. This definitely helps to explain why many of us are constantly challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves toward new goals even after we have achieved the ones we set for ourselves.
It Is Within the Act of Seeking Itself That We Find Happiness
If, like me, you believe the purpose of life on this Earth is to grow and evolve through challenges and experiences, then it totally makes sense that we would be getting our satisfaction by simply moving toward, rather than achieving, an outcome. There are always ways that we can improve and we are never truly done growing. So why not reach for the stars, and continue challenging yourself?
An innate drive to look ahead doesn’t necessarily cause a permanent state of dissatisfaction. Like anything else, it’s all about perspective. If you see that you are challenging yourself to grow and do better, then you should feel at peace with that, but if you are doing this while feeling that you are not good enough and won’t be until you achieve X goal, then you will be unhappy before, during, and after the process of reaching that goal.
We tend to be so hard on ourselves; rarely do we ever pat ourselves on the back for the accomplishments we have achieved. If this is you, and you think you won’t be happy until reaching a certain goal, just look at how far you have come and commend your efforts for always striving. The desire to grow and be the best person you can be, picking yourself up when you are down and continuously trucking along, is so commendable, and certainly something to be proud of. So in case no one has told you lately, or you have forgotten to tell yourself, good job, you!
A philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia named Evan Thompson says that the entire field of philosophy can be seen as an expression of this impulse. Otherwise, philosophers would simply come up with an answer and rest content with the solution. Thompson says the quest is an end in itself. As the old saying goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
He goes on to explain how this is true even in the realm of arts and sciences.
“If you’re an artist there are always new modes of expression, new things to create and communicate. The world isn’t fixed, it’s always changing, so that means you have to create anew in light of the changes,” he says.
“I don’t think any good scientist thinks one day science will come to an end. Science is about questioning, new ways of looking at things, new devices. That’s entirely open-ended.”
Keep Challenging Yourself
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”
It is the very fact that we don’t yet have everything or haven’t yet accomplished everything that we wish to achieve that makes life so fulfilling. So keep on striving — to reach that goal, to do better, to evolve, and to grow. This is what will bring you joy and happiness.