The Progress Principle

(Enjoying the Process of Achievement)

by Lisa Jacobson, MAPP
March 10, 2009

We’re well into 2009. How are you doing on your big goals for this year? If you are still plodding along the path, consider the Progress Principle as a refreshing perspective for enjoying the journey along the way.

The pleasure of reaching a goal - like getting a promotion or finishing a big project - surely gives us a momentary emotional boost. We feel delighted, perhaps even euphoric, for maybe an hour or a day or a couple of days.

But more often than not, when success is within reach, and some final event confirms what we’ve already begun to expect, at the end of our quest, we typically feel more of a sense of relief and the pleasure of closure. We celebrate momentarily and often ask, what’s next?

Jon Haidt, a social psychologist at The University of Virginia, and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, says that animals get a rush of dopamine – the pleasure neurotransmitter – when they do something that advances their evolutionary interests and moves them ahead in the game of survival. Haidt uses this example: Food and sex give pleasure. This pleasure reinforces our behaviors – we want more.

Here’s how Haidt says it works, though. Behavior reinforcement works best when it comes seconds, not minutes later. Think about how difficult it would be to teach a dog the game of fetch if you were to reward him with a treat 10 minutes after he retrieved the ball. There would be no connection between the behavior and the reward. The same is true for people. Our brains feel pleasure when we take a step in the right direction but it has difficulty making a connection between an accomplishment on Friday with actions or rewards on Monday.

The point is this: contentment is a short-lived feeling of release after a goal is achieved. Another way to put it is that many small goals equals many sources of pleasure.

Haidt puts it this way: in pursuit of the goal, it is the journey that counts, not the destination. We know that most of the pleasure we experience along the way comes with each step that brings us closer to our ultimate destination.

Think about it. The final step in the process is often no more thrilling than the pleasure of taking off a heavy backpack – a sense of relief.

Thus, the Progress Principle: Pleasure comes more from making progress towards our goals than from achieving them. Importantly, Haidt says that people win at the “game of life” through the use of this Progress Principle by achieving high status, a good reputation, genuine friendships, a supportive mate, accumulating resources and rearing children to be successful at the same game. Or as the ancient proverb goes, "many small steps make the journey of life."

Lisa Jacobson, MAPP (Masters, Applied Positive Psychology)
Workplace Solutions (

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