I’m coming to the end of a big, big goal – finishing a PhD. I’m 57 and I went back to school eight years ago, so you could accurately say that I’ve been working on this for a while. The last couple of months have been an around-the-clock, laser-focused effort to complete this 200+ page paper I call my dissertation. (The size of a book, but let’s be honest – it would probably be a boring one).
I’ve sent my dissertation off for review and while I have a couple more steps, all of a sudden, I have a lot of time on my hands. So what happened? I found myself cranky, crying and critical of everything and everyone. All of a sudden, the messy house that hadn’t bothered me is now bothering me. The piles of clean laundry waiting to be put away mock me. So do the piles of mail. I know what is wrong – it’s a post-achievement let-down and it’s a real thing, yo.
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 let-down 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.”Buzz Aldrin
Many people who set big goals, plan for those goals, prepare for them and then achieve them can also feel a sense of sadness, loss and let-down, whether that’s running a marathon, climbing Kilimanjaro, publishing a book, getting a big promotion or marrying the love of their lives. Maybe even seeing our youngest children graduate from high school and launch their adult lives.
As it turns out, we can blame neuroscience for part of that emptiness. 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 then the happy feelings keep us moving. However, after actual goal achievement, that dopamine drops. Bummer.
I’ve got a party coming up to celebrate becoming Dr. Richardson, and then I will get on a plane to go serve in Poland and Ukraine. After that, I don’t know. Besides home renovation projects, I don’t have any other major goals right now. And that’s OK. Give me a few months…..