We are inundated since childhood with the philosophy to create happiness through successful achievement of our goals. Often this approach continues into adulthood. If we are offered another strategy for happiness later it isn’t nurtured or supported by the world around us. We have our model, and so our current paradigm discounts others. That is until our success and goal achievement strategies leave us unfulfilled and looking for more.
The goal achievement strategy for happiness makes sense because it is how we were trained. It conforms to our experience about how our emotions were created since childhood. We’ve learned through repetition and habit since childhood to experience emotions as a reaction to our successes and failures. By the time we are adults we’ve been living by this conditioned pattern for so long it seems to be the reality. However, it only appears true if we don’t have the awareness to see the rest of the story. If you observe children before they become conditioned, you see that they are happy almost all the time, and often for no reason.
Ivan Pavlov’s dog learned through conditioning and habit to relate the sound of a ringing bell to getting food. In reality, a ringing bell doesn’t mean that the dog will eat, but the dog learned this relationship through repetition. As humans we also learned to feel emotions through repetition and conditioning. When we did something that people wanted we were rewarded with praise. When we failed to meet others expectations we might have been punished, or ignored.
By that conditioning over years achieving goals can produce a wonderful feeling, but it doesn’t mean the two are directly related. They are only related because the mind has learned through repetition to link them together. Many individuals have driven themselves to accomplishment only to feel empty and wondering, “Is this all there is?” This is when our conditioning falls apart and we have to look deeper to find a more meaningful happiness and fulfillment.
Emotional Habits from Goal Achievement
I remember being in 1st grade and going up to a chart that had all the kid’s names on it. I counted the number of gold stars by my name. I remember the euphoric feeling I had when I saw I had more stars than anyone else. This lasted about four seconds. I noticed a girl’s name at the bottom below mine. I counted out the number of her stars. She had two more stars than me. My heart sank and I walked back to my seat dejected.
What happened in just a few seconds to cycle my emotions to both ends of the spectrum? Certainly no actual achievement of failure occurred.
At the surface it appears that my performance, or the gold stars were having an impact on my emotions. I didn’t have the awareness to notice that the interpretation my mind made was the critical factor. My mind was running stories, expectations, self images, and comparisons without my awareness. Years later, when I reflected on this experience and others like it, I was able to perceive that it was these automated mental programs that was creating my emotions.
Awareness: The Ability to Perceive the Invisible
One aspect of awareness is clarity of perception. In self awareness it is the ability to clearly observe the dynamics of the mind that were previously unconscious. If you put into slow motion the dynamics of my mind in front of that chart of gold stars it would look something like the following.
Walking up to the chart of gold stars, I was hoping that I would be number one. It was a goal I had. My mind structured the belief that if I had the most gold stars, then I was the best and smartest in the class. I would be a winner, a success, and therefore lovable. In reality, gold stars on a chart don’t have any direct value to a 6 year old. However, my beliefs translated gold stars into being a good boy. A “good boy” was someone who was rewarded with love and praise. That meant being happy.
When I perceived that I had the most stars, my mind activated the belief that I was good, and worthy of being loved. My mind generated a positive self image, or recalled an existing one. I believed I was that positive image in my mind. I then expressed love to that image, because it was worthy of being loved. I could feel the love I was expressing and it was a wonderful feeling. In reality my spirits weren’t lifted by the number of gold stars. The joy I felt was my own love being expressed and felt. The number of stars was just a conditioned trigger like a bell to Pavlov’s dog.
What I was conscious of at the time was the number of stars, my performance compared to others, and the happy emotions I felt. I learned to relate my performance and comparison to others as the source of my emotions. I completely overlooked the aspect of my mind that was doing the comparing. I had many experiences like this and my mind learned to associate accomplishing goals to feeling good. I also learned to feel bad when I failed or performed poorly. I wasn’t aware of the role of my mental imagery, beliefs, or my power to express love and appreciation for myself as a separate action. These were an automated response that I was not aware of. I only saw the trigger and assumed that the trigger had the power over my emotions. At six years old I already relied on the bells of gold stars and achieving goals to control my power to express love and create my own happiness.
When I saw the girl’s name with more stars, it triggered my mind into another automated routine. If I was not the winner, then I must be the loser. Quicker than I was aware of it, the mind concluded that I was less than. My mind displayed a negative self image, and I believed that negative image was me. I expressed a self judgment and rejection to that image as being unworthy. Immediately I felt the emotions that accompany expressing judgment, rejection, and unworthiness. They felt unpleasant. At the time my mind related my emotions to my performance. I didn’t know that I had created and expressed them as a reaction to my beliefs about performance.
It wasn’t the achievement of success or being a winner that made me happy. It was my beliefs that controlled my expression of emotions of love and self acceptance that made me happy. It wasn’t the failure, or coming in second that made me unhappy. It was the beliefs that controlled my expression of rejection and judgment that were the cause of those unpleasant emotions.
Conditional Love and Happiness
At 6 years old I was already conditioned to create love, or self rejection as a reaction to my beliefs. My emotional shifts weren’t dependent on a bell like Pavlov’s dog, but by the number of symbols on a paper chart, a grade, or what someone said or thought of me. The beliefs and images in my mind were regulating which emotions I expressed and felt based on those triggers.
In my dejected state I decided to try harder to prove myself worth. Some people might approve of this reactive motivation to succeed as a way to make a person grow. There is a valid case for goal setting as it spurs a person to action. However, if this is a person’s primary logic, it is pretty limited. It’s based on the idea that the only way to improve is through self rejection. As if we will become better through verbal beatings. It doesn’t consider other forms of motivation that don’t involve self judgment. Secondly, what if the other kids in school let their mind operate with the same criteria for self acceptance and self worth? Only one child in the class, or school, could feel good about themselves at any given time. By that criterion more than 90% of children would have to conclude that they are unworthy.
The Habit of Chasing Happiness
In spite of the problems with this logic, I continued to unconsciously live by these patterned beliefs generating my emotions. Through college and career I was continually chasing all the goals and success strategies that I could. When I achieved a goal, I celebrated and felt good about myself. At least for a short time anyways. This perpetuated the assumption that achieving goals would reward me with the emotions of love, acceptance, and happiness. When I failed to meet the goals others set for me I felt like a failure. This was true even if their goals were unrealistic. I was so conditioned to play the game that I didn’t realize the faults of it.
This continued until I became aware of these beliefs and changed them.
This limited paradigm for achieving happiness is reinforced by people selling success formula programs. They make a strong case for setting goals, motivation, and persistence etc. Because most all of us have been conditioned in a similar way this philosophy of achieving happiness through success appears true. However it completely ignores the role our beliefs have in determining our emotions. Even if we achieve a life long dream, our mind can shift our expectations and requirements for feeling good about our self within the week. When it does so, any joyful feeling or sense of worth is lost.
Beliefs Determine Your Happiness
What goes on in the internal world of your mind has more to do with determining your happiness than any external factors. That includes succeeding or failing at your goals. Self judgments, beliefs in certain thoughts, and false self images are what directly affect your happiness. Even when external goals are achieved or lost it is what you believe about your self that will determine your emotions.
This is why a person who has accomplished much can feel unworthy, unloved, and believes he has failed. At the same time a man who has little to show in the way of accomplishments or achievement can be happy beyond measure.
Is your Love for your self conditional, or unconditional?
Life is rich with diverse experiences, challenges, and surprises. You will not be able to bend everything in life to meet your hopes and goals. If you rely on the achievement of goals to determine how much love and acceptance you express, your happiness will be limited. However, if you develop awareness of what your mind is doing, you can manage expectations, dissolve false images, and change your core beliefs. Then your mind becomes flexible and it will no longer regulate how much love and self acceptance you are allowed to express. You can choose your own triggers, and control the gates that allow your love and joy to come out of you. The result is that your love happiness can flow to your self and others without conditions and without limits.
For practical steps to identify and change your beliefs, consider listening to the Self Mastery Course.