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The Arrival Fallacy: How I Never Found Happiness

We lost $30,000 in a single night.

Looking back, that was what broke us. It started when my girlfriend—the woman I was going to marry — flew to Laos. It was a week-long volunteering trip to help poor villagers in the mountains.

The trip went well. She came back, and life went on. One day, she stopped by an ATM to withdraw money. Her card didn’t work. We called her bank to ask what was up.

Everything was gone.

In Laos, she used her debit card at an ATM. There was a card reader attached to the machine. In a single night, some bastards somewhere stole all $30,000 of her life savings.

We tried to call her bank, but South Korean banks are strict. They wanted proof that she didn’t spent the money. The transactions were untraceable.

None of that money ever came back.

A few months before we started dating, I quit my job to to freelance full time. I swore I would never wear a necktie again.

It was my dream—to make a living doing what I wanted to do. I loved the freedom. I didn’t expect a girlfriend. I didn’t want a girlfriend. But sometimes, life happens.

That $30,000 was everything she owned in the world. Suddenly, I had to make a decision. Stay or go?

My rational mind said no. I had less than 6 months of savings and no stable job. How would I provide for two people?

I said yes. Don’t worry, I’ll support you.

The time I had to chase dreams and build projects went to providing for this girl who—through no fault of her own—had lost a lifetime of savings. I went from free to fettered in single night.

I couldn’t take the pressure.

Sweet evening dinners turned to tear-filled arguments. I blamed her for taking my freedom. She blamed me for my lack of sympathy. I wanted her to work. She wanted my understanding.

We secretly hated each other. Our relationship was dead, but we didn’t want to know it.

We would bleed and bleed for another four months.

Each day of those four months, I told myself lies. If we can get us back to the US and ask my parents for help, we’ll be happy. If I can get into a PhD program, we’ll have money and we can be happy. If I can get stable jobs, we will be happy.

Friends and family told me to get out. It was a toxic, abusive relationship. I ignored them. I “loved” this girl. We were going to make it.

Why did I keep going when friends, family and all these other people much smarter than me knew I was fucked?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from arrival fallacy.

The Arrival Fallacy

My relationship was long dead, but every day I kept telling myself, “If we can just do X or get to Y, we will be happy again.”

I didn’t realize was that, if we weren’t happy NOW, we were never going to be happy. There is no magic moment where you step across the line from suck to serenity.

In Happier, Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar defines the arrival fallacy as:

“The false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.”

I realized this too late. It’s not events that make happiness, it’s consistency. To know how happy you will be next week, take the average of your last 100 days.

Ben-Shahar continues—

Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.

Tough times come to everyone. What I should have done was find sparks of happiness in dark times. Instead, I gambled on some magical future that never came.

How to Combat the Arrival Fallacy

That breakup was the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me how to be happy.

Here are some techniques you can use to combat arrival.

I. Be Aware

The first step to change is knowing the problem.

Names are powerful things. After I learned of the term “arrival fallacy”, I started seeing it in my words, in my friends’ excuses, in the dreams people sell on the Internet… Everywhere.

II. Use Reflective Journaling

I keep a morning journal where I pour my mind — raw and uncensored — right onto the page. This lets me go back months or years in the future, look at the assumptions I was making, and ask, “What did I believe that was wrong?”

For example, when our relationship was failing due to communication errors, I wrote:

“I’ve decided I will stay with her until her English shapes up (or until she gives up on learning it). This problem will work its way out in time.”

This will work out in time. Her English eventually improved, but nothing changed.

III. “No Arrival” Checklist

This is something I picked up from Sebastian Marshall, author of Gateless — one of my favorite books on success systems.

Sebastian has a checklist of his morning routine, and the last entry on his list is titled “No Arrival.” The simple act of checking off “No Arrival” brings awareness to the moment. It’s a reminder to get away from “execute, execute, execute” and actually enjoy the moment.

IV. Find 3 Gratitudes

This is also part of my morning routine.

I write down three things, small things, that I am grateful for. This might be a pleasant conversation, the taste of good coffee in the morning, or even the feeling of a cool breeze on my skin. Try to feel it, not just think it.

It’s very, very hard to be unhappy when you’re feeling gratitude.