New research suggests that when we accomplish a goal too early in the process, we may not be as happy as we would be if the goal was achieved during an expected interval.
The typical progression is: set goal, work to achieve goal, attain goal, and react accordingly — but, when the script isn’t followed, the positive reaction is reduced.
In “Feeling Good at the Right Time: Why People Value Predictability in Goal Attainment,” researchers found that when people learned, for example, that they would win a game, get a job offer, or be accepted to college before their predetermined time, the experience was muted twice — when they learned early, and then when the goal was achieved.
“We basically show that people want to feel good at the right time — that is, when a goal is achieved and not before then,” says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago.
Researchers conducted four studies, and found that when people made script-consistent errors in recalling an attained goal, that people were happier when good news followed the predetermined script.
Conversely, people valued goals less when they learn early that they will be achieving them. People also had a mellowed reaction to achieving the goal if they were certain beforehand that the goal would be achieved.
“When people learn that a goal will be achieved before it actually is, they often try to suppress the positive emotion in order to feel it at the ‘right time,’” Fishbach says.
“The result is that people don’t feel as happy when they get the news — because it’s not the right time — as well as when the goal is officially achieved — because by then it’s no longer ‘news.’”
Fishbach speculates that, among other possible reasons, this muting may occur because of the fragility of positive emotion, noting that it is much easier for a good mood to sour than it is to overcome a bad mood.
“Once positive emotion is ‘tampered with,’ it appears to be difficult to reignite,” they write.
“It appears that positive emotion can be dampened relatively easily, but reawakening it appears to be more difficult.”