Holly Richardson: What makes us sad after achieving a big goal?

FILE - In this Aug. 11, 2016, file photo, United States' Michael Phelps celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's 200-meter individual medley during the swimming competitions at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With the Tokyo Games on hold because of the coronavirus, the retired swimming great worries that some athletes may have trouble coping with this unprecedented postponement. “It's a total bamboozle,” Phelps told The Associated Press on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. “There's such a wave of emotions. I can't imagine what these athletes are going through right now.” (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

My husband and I have been in our current home for almost 17 years and, after most of our kids have flown the coop, it was time for a redo. We ripped out carpet from our front room and off three sets of stairs — 16 months ago.

It took us 16 months to go from the “before” picture to the “after” picture. Except for a little help putting in new electrical boxes, we did all the work ourselves — repair work on the stairs, priming and painting walls, ceilings, stairs and stair spindles, changing out all the plugs, switches and lights, replacing the floor and baseboards, we did every bit of it. And, I love the result.

The problem? When we finally finished last week, just in time for our son to return home after two years away, I found myself sad and crying. At first, I couldn’t even identify why. Was I sad that it took so long? That there was so much more to do in the rest of the house? That I have other things on my to-do list that don’t involve the house? I wondered what was wrong with me?!

Then I remembered some other stories.

Michael Phelps won eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 — and then took an emotional nosedive, finding himself in the “darkest place you could ever imagine,” including contemplating suicide. In fact, so many experience the post-Olympic letdown that sports psychologists are now working with athletes to prepare for and deal with post-Olympic stress disorder and depression.

Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon with Neil Armstrong, a pursuit of many years. Once he returned to Earth, he became despondent, sliding into a battle with alcoholism, hopelessness and depression.

“I wanted to resume my duties, but there were no duties to resume,” he wrote in his memoir, “Magnificent Desolation.” “There was no goal, no sense of calling, no project worth pouring myself into.”

Doctoral students often find themselves experiencing post-dissertation blues. After years of pursuing education, often with many smaller plateaus along the way — bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, more classwork, stressful comprehensive exams, then dissertation research and writing, one day it’s over. Like Aldrin, many new Ph.D.s wander around, literally or figuratively, feeling sad and wondering what to do with themselves.

Other people who set big goals, plan for them, prepare for them and then achieve them can also feel a sense of sadness, loss and letdown, whether that’s running a marathon, climbing Kilimanjaro, publishing a book, getting a big promotion or marrying the love of your life.

As it turns out, there are at least a couple of reasons. One is neuroscience. You see, our brain releases dopamine in anticipation of achieving a reward. It’s associated with both motivation and happiness, so when we reach milestones along the way, we get another hit of dopamine and the happy feelings keep us moving. However, after actual goal achievement, that dopamine drops. Bummer.

Another reason could be the “arrival fallacy,” or telling ourselves we will be happy when we achieve x, y or z.

So what to do? Go right to another big goal? No, actually.

It’s important to have goals that stretch us, but it’s also important to enjoy and appreciate our accomplishments. So take a little breather and enjoy your current win.

Go ahead and plan for the next post-achievement letdown. Maybe that looks like a party or a massage or a trip. Maybe it means spending some time on things you’ve been neglecting while pursuing your “big, hairy, audacious goal.” Maybe it’s taking some time to pause, reflect and record what you learned. Maybe you use your experience and begin to mentor others.

Then, get going on your next big thing.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is spending time sitting in her newly finished front room and beginning to plan for her post-Ph.D. letdown.