I’ve blogged about New Year’s resolutions in the past and although I’m a fan of goal setting, I also wonder what it would be like to have a goal of “no goal.” In other words, learning to be more present and not constantly be driven by expectations from myself and others.
This is not just derived from ancient practices and religions like Buddhism, where being present is a cornerstone, but from actual neuroscience. Dopamine is the pleasure-producing chemical in our brain that is released when someone pays you a compliment, when you accomplish something you're proud of, when you take a bite of chocolate cake, whenever you receive a message (text, tweet, post, etc.) on your phone, or in a more extreme case, when you take addictive drugs.
We need to get intermittent releases of dopamine to make life enjoyable, but when the intensity and frequency of dopamine surges becomes too great, that is when cravings, addictions and mood disorders like depression can take place.
Children, teens and adults who are constantly absorbing digital media develop a physiological dependence on their devices, seeking that next hit of dopamine. Digital addiction is a separate topic which I cover here.
At a more subtle level than digital addiction or drug abuse, many of us are laying down multiple expectations or setting short-term or long-term resolutions and goals for ourselves and others (kids, family members, co-workers, etc.), but falling short. Studies show that when expectations or goals are not met, dopamine levels come crashing down.
Think of a child at Christmas receiving a brightly wrapped gift, expecting a drone or some cool toy, but getting socks and a hand knit sweater instead. A smile turns into a frown, while dopamine comes crashing down! A few other examples are listed below:
-A friend, family member or work colleague somehow disappointed you
-The service in a store or restaurant didn’t meet your needs
-A start-up business idea that you thought was going to give you financial independence remains stagnant
-You spent a ton of time planning a vacation but the destination and experience wasn’t what you expected
-As a parent, spouse, adult son or daughter caring for elderly parents, etc. you are constantly breaking your back caring for and worrying about family members without getting appreciation, and often feeling like you are being taken for granted.
-As a professional (doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.), you have spent a large sum of your money (or your parent's money) to finance your education and years studying and training to hone a specific skill, yet your job is not providing you with the joy you were promised.
Here in Silicon Valley, I take care of many immigrants that come to the US, leaving their family, culture and support system, with lofty dreams and ambitions, but often find that life is more difficult than they imagined. This study, which is somewhat reflective of the immigrant scenario I described, is based on The Three Gorges Project, where the Chinese government relocated over a million Chinese to work on the development of a major infrastructure project in return for certain benefits which unfortunately never materialized. The study found a clear connection between unmet expectations and depression.
In many cultures, including my own, we are often told by well-meaning family members that certain landmarks in our life, like choosing a specific profession (medicine, law, business, computer science, etc.), making a certain salary, getting married or having children, will make our lives complete.
Ironically these specific tangible landmarks or achievements, meant to bring happiness and fulfillment, may provide a transient sense of accomplishment, but often they transform into a perceived source of pain and suffering.
Individuals may blame their current mental state on their job, their spouse, their in-laws, or even where they live. The automatic reflex is then to go on an ongoing journey to continuously change external circumstances to bring inner harmony.
Another response is to place the burden of unfulfilled dreams onto their children. An example is a patient of mine who is a disgruntled Silicon Valley engineer who has bounced back and forth between multiple large companies and start-ups. He feels like his career path has no purpose and he tells me he wishes he went into medicine. In fact, he is determined to make sure his children go into medicine so they can have a more fulfilling life. I reminded him that physicians are now facing unprecedented rates of burnout, depression and dissatisfaction.
He is setting a sky high expectation for his children, who may not have a genuine passion or even interest in medicine, to devote years of their prime youth to an expensive and rigorous training process for a career that currently has a 50 percent burnout rate. I have colleagues now who were “pushed” into medicine who resent not having had the opportunity to explore other career options that may have been better suited for their personalities and their overall lifestyle.
This again goes back to the principle of unmet expectations. Parents may have unknowingly created these expectations, which are then earnestly adopted by kids, who in turn are now passing it onto their children. Much of this pain is self-inflicted with no parental involvement. It might come from peer pressure, societal cues, or media that glamorizes certain professions.
Silicon Valley, where I live, is the ultimate land of sky high expectations. A place where human beings work for incredibly innovative companies, make plenty of money, and are showered with endless benefits. Yet in my clinic, there is a palpable sense of discontent from my patients, many of whom are C-level execs and powerful VCs. Yes, the road to their success was paved with high driving expectations, but along the way something valuable was lost and for many they are left feeling a deep sense of loss and emptiness, in addition to suffering from chronic health issues like diabetes, obesity, early heart disease and depression.
I'm not telling you to drop your inner drive or stop motivating your children to achieve. The central issue is avoiding the temptation to tie external achievement to inner fulfillment. I fell down this rabbit hole for a few years. I was obsessed with finding someone to publish my book and received piles of rejections before landing a publisher.
The expectation I set was that I would be fulfilled when my book was published. Yes, it felt good to publish my own book and I've felt rewarded by the impact it has had on readers, but on a daily basis that is not what brings me peace or joy. It's connecting with family, friends and the great outdoors. It's practicing mindfulness, exercising, and eating foods that nourish and energize my body. It's traveling to different parts of the world, playing my guitar or listening to great music. When I become too immersed in my work, I disconnect from these practices which eventually affects my overall sense of well being.
Fortunately I've learned over the years to recognize these tendencies and reset, but many of my workaholic patients are unable to do so. They continue to follow the paradigm that once they reach a specific professional goal or earning potential, then they can focus on their mind and body. Unfortunately this is just a great big scam. It's far more likely that if they prioritized taking care of their mind and body, that they would have a better chance of achieving personal and professional success. Chronic stress, sleep deprivation, inactivity and an unhealthy diet compromise brain function and prevent you from unlocking your true potential.
My overall approach to life now is to continue working towards specific goals, but to set lower expectations and be more mindful and grateful of some of the less obvious blessings that keep coming my way.
As an author, blogger and speaker in our digital world, I used to get sucked into setting high expectations on numbers of books sold, posts read and shared, audience attendance and all sorts of metrics. I no longer care if I hit goals or not. The mere act of writing this post was therapeutic, regardless of whether it reaches and impacts a single person or thousands. The fact that my parents gave me the education and life experiences that allow me to be creative and write to an audience is a blessing.
I wrote this post while sitting in an Air BNB in Southern California. I could be upset that it’s cloudy and cold outside when I might have expected sunshine and warm weather. Instead I’m grateful that I have the financial freedom and independence to travel and take vacations. I love the fact that my teenagers are sleeping in the next room and that we get to spend the day as a family regardless of the weather.
Some of you who are chronic goal setters may feel a bit disturbed by my blog post. I would ask you to not stop setting goals, but instead to think about setting them in a detached manner.
Use goals to help you organize yourself and motivate yourself to move specific projects forward, but don’t attach your emotions or sense of well-being to them.
Make the process an exciting adventure so if you don't reach your goal, you still feel enriched.
This is the advice I gave a woman who met me about writing a book on health geared for Italians. I told her to interview interesting people, travel, and learn new skills she wants to share with her readers. Make the research process so enjoyable that if the book gets published that would be a bonus, but if not, she would have no regrets and would have gained new knowledge and relationships that will enrich her in other ways. Apply this approach to any of your pursuits.
Creating awareness around setting expectations is a key first step. I'm now in the habit of catching myself and labeling the act of when I'm setting an expectation….”I just noticed that I set an expectation that the food I ordered at this restaurant is going to be delicious.” I then do some form of reframing…”I'm thankful to be eating food that someone else prepared for me and is serving to me regardless of how it tastes.” That process alone is a goal worth striving for: Recognize, Reset, Reframe.
So what's your resolution or goal for 2018? How about being kinder and gentler to yourself? How about lowering your expectations and having gratitude for all the things we take for granted on a minute-by-minute basis. How about starting with a small bite-size goal that's easy to accomplish like adding 2 more servings of plants to your daily diet, eating dinner an hour earlier, getting to bed a half hour earlier, meditating for 5 minutes in the morning, etc.
Err on the side of making your goal ridiculously simple to achieve. Setting low expectations and incremental goals can lead to small “wins” which gradually snowball, preventing the dopamine crashes I discussed earlier in the post from not meeting sky high expectations.
For Parents and Children
I worry about how kids are being raised today. All the principles we discussed need to be integrated into how we parent. Appreciate the effort they put into an activity, but don’t discourage or disparage them for not reaching a specific goal. I watch too many parents do this and they have no idea how much damage and suffering this type of parenting causes at the moment, and later in life. Especially when you compare a child to a sibling or a peer. “Why can't you be assertive like Bobby, more patient like Susan, or more disciplined like Sam.” I sometimes slip into this mode which is hardwired into so many of us, but I catch myself and immediately apologize to my kids….”Sorry for being hard on you about your game. I know you did your best…”
Don't sell your kids the current scam that if they sacrifice their sleep and overall health to get straight As so they can get into a specific college, medical school, business school, etc. then a pot of gold will be waiting at the end. Optimal physical and emotional health IS the pot of gold and should be taken advantage of right now.