When We Learn That We Achieved a Goal Too Early, It Mutes Our Sense of Triumph

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Think of some major accomplishment in your life. Then think of what led up to it. Most likely, there was a long, semi-ordered process preceding it: you meet someone, you date, you get married. You see a job you want, you apply for it, you get it. We tend to describe accomplishments in terms of one triumphant moment, but in fact there’s usually a longer, more involved story than that. These stories can affect how happy we are when we’re lucky enough to succeed at something. And a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that finding out you’ve accomplished a goal early, in a manner different from how you were expecting — an email notifying you that you got into college before the official big packet arrives in the mail, for example — can reduce your happiness at having achieved that goal.

A lot of this comes down to “goal scripts,” argue the researchers, which “contain information on the process of pursuing a desired end-point (i.e., a goal), including the resulting emotional experience.” Our heads are jam-packed with different sorts of scripts, and they help shape our expectations of and responses to certain sequences of events. Goal scripts are one subgenre.

To get a better sense of how goal scripts work and how learning about an accomplishment early could affect happiness, the researchers ran four studies. Overall, they found evidence that when subjects learned they had accomplished a goal early, their happiness at having achieved the goal was in fact “mellowed,” likely as a result of the deviation from the goal script. Even after receiving “official” notice of the win, their happiness level didn’t jump up to the level of folks who found out about the victory in the manner they were expecting.

In one of the studies, for example, the researchers had college students apply for a hypothetical consulting internship by answering a couple of short questions, and then notify them either via a letter handed to them shortly after submitting their application, or via an unofficial computer notice that was followed by a letter. “Thus, at no point in time did early information make participants as happy as the scripted attainment information,” the researchers note. The script mattered, and when subjects found out they’d been successful before they expected to, it blunted the impact of that success.

The researcher note there are probably exceptions to this: “for goals that are stressful to pursue, the surprising information that the goal will be attained very soon could lift the stress away and allow one to enjoy the final stages of goal pursuit. Alternatively, the happiness from winning low probability goals (e.g., a multimillion dollar state lottery) could be so intense that timing will have negligible influence on one’s happiness.”

As with any psychological study, and particularly one involving the measurement of happiness, it’s tricky to directly apply lab findings to the real world. But what’s striking here is the idea that our expectations of how an event should unfold matter — a lot. We’re not purely goal-oriented beings. A certain orderliness or predictability is important as well.