The hidden happiness in goal pursuit

The hidden happiness in goal pursuit – what I learned about happiness, status, and emotions from winning the Olympics.

When I crossed the finish line of my Olympic final in first place, I was stunned. It wasn’t that it was unexpected; Katherine and I were the favourites and we had never been beaten in the three years we had been boat partners. The memories are extremely vivid. The noise and height of the grandstands, the sense of being inside a stadium yet on the water, counting the 5 other boats behind us to be sure we were first, the knowledge that my family and friends were there, the pain in my legs and lungs, the need for oxygen, the sunlight on the water, the deepest possible satisfaction of perfect teamwork and a challenge met... but emotions? There weren’t any. This was awkward, as it was one of the questions that I was asked most during the hours that followed: “How do you feel?” I didn’t know. I was stunned.

This – alongside training for the Olympics, when my emotions often took me on a roller-coaster ride – was one of the more memorable experiences. It made me curious about how human emotions work. How can we use our emotions to help us do the things we want to achieve? How can our emotions help us work towards our goals? I’m a great believer in that we should work with the reality of our human selves, not fight ourselves.

Answers can be found in evolution. I recently read a book I highly recommend, “The Status Game” by Will Storr. It argues persuasively that we evolved as humans to cooperate in tribes in order to access resources. This evolution pre-programmed us with three simple rules:

  • Connect to tribes
  • Work to gain status within these tribes
  • Work to elevate the status of the tribe as a whole.

Fast forward thousands of years and our tribes are everywhere: workplaces, sports team fans, local communities, IT support experts, flat-earthers. The tribes change but the pre-programmed rules don’t. To win status, we may be competent, virtuous, or dominant. We all do this, and we can’t stop it – it is the way we have ensured access to resources for ourselves and our families for all human time.

These pre-programmed ‘status rules’ are self-enforced using emotions: we are happy when we are gaining status and we feel awful when we are losing it. That, argues the book, is the point of emotions: they are there to coerce us into the tribal behaviours that have helped us survive.

So why is this helpful? Three reasons.

First, we humans need progress, goal pursuit, achievement – whatever you want to call it. There is nothing in this system that makes us feel good for just having status within a group. We only feel good as we gain status – just having it isn’t rewarded on a neurological level. Therefore, we say it’s ‘about the journey, not the destination’ and ‘money can’t buy happiness’. So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about never being satisfied – our emotional circuits can’t measure absolute levels of achievement, we can only sense progress. 

Secondly, and interestingly, anything that feels like progress will make us feel happy. In the status game of work, any type of promotion or recognition will help. And in the status game of community, visiting a neighbour or helping a stranger – therein gaining status through virtue – will also make us feel good.

And thirdly, we can have this status happiness ‘on tap’ simply by having multiple communities (or games) we value and align with. Then if we are stagnating somewhere and feeling frustrated, we can make a small effort in another of our games, and the emotional reward – happiness – is ours.

I am finding this way of thinking incredibly useful for days when I seem to make no progress, for days when I just don’t feel like it, for days when I feel overwhelmed with too much to do. I am learning to seek out the little wins with an outsize emotional boost: sending someone a positive text, doing ten minutes of pilates, replying to the one email I’ve been putting off, inviting a struggling colleague for a quick coffee and chat. These are all progress in various games, and remembering that you are making progress is all that’s necessary. And the lesson from winning the Olympics? Gentle progress that you can savour is just as good as stellar progress, because the human brain just doesn’t have the circuitry to process that anyway. Savour the daily little wins, because that is what humans were built to do.

Anna Watkins

Anna holds a PhD in mathematics and is a Cambridge graduate. She won bronze in the 2008 Olympics, and gold in the 2012 London Olympics in rowing. Today she works as a facilitator, mentor, and advisor, delivering occasional keynotes and workshops globally. Anna is part of the Hintsa Senior Faculty for leadership development.