As of last week, I’ve now published 100 posts here on Scientia Potentia Est. A whole hundred seems like quite the milestone, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss some of the science behind goal-setting and achievement.
Any further discussion of setting goals, achievement and how you feel about it will centre around this essential chemical. You might well have heard about it before, because it is the centre of our reward pathway in the brain, released to make you feel good. It’s also the problem in addiction, because most addictive substances cause a dopamine release, making you feel good and making your brain crave more dopamine – by returning to the addictive substance or activity.
Dopamine is primarily a neurotransmitter – meaning that it carries messages between neurons and from neurons to body tissues. All neurotransmitters are very fast-acting so that the nervous system can initiate rapid and voluntary or involuntary changes in the body. In contrast, hormones (the other chemical messengers that the body uses) act more slowly and are always involuntary, for example, not being able to control your body feeling hungry, or growing, etc… Dopamine can act as a hormone in some cases, but in the context of goal-setting and achievement, it is most definitely a neurotransmitter.
Like all neurotransmitters, it is produced in the brain. When you do something that your body considers to be good (thought or action, etc.) dopamine is released into the brain to provide a “feel-good” response. This is effectively just a signal to inform your brain that whatever you just did is worth doing more of and providing positive reinforcement so that you do that thing more often.
When you achieve something, your brain releases dopamine and you feel great. It causes you to want to achieve more things so that you feel good more often.
And to achieve more things, we generally set goals.
Unfortunately, our brains can’t actually tell much of a difference between setting a goal and actually going the distance to get there. That’s why you feel great when you set New Year’s resolutions … your brain is releasing dopamine in anticipation of you achieving those goals.
Instead, when you set a goal, you want to achieve it, so your brain decides that you effectively already have it. So then if you fail or slip up at all in achieving your goal, your brain actually regards it as a loss of a valued possession.
In fact, because your brain acts as if you already own the achievement at the end, it becomes part of your identity to achieve that. This sets up anxiety and tension as you try to reach the goal. Ideally, this tension would drive you to reach further towards the goal, but often it works the opposite way and causes you to feel worse and cut off the dopamine supply.
The bigger the goal, the worse you feel when you don’t achieve it. So the best advice to goal setters is to set little goals and steps. That way, each goal is smaller and there is less negative emotion during the process of trying to achieve it. And you’ll also have plenty more dopamine releases as you achieve each small step, rather than becoming overwhelmed with the huge goal and giving up.
And if this post got you thinking about what your New Year’s Resolutions are going to be, the best advice I have is to start all of them now. Start forming some habits now so that you can maintain your resolutions throughout 2020.