There’s something about “I did it!” that sets all kinds of positive emotions racing through us: pride, satisfaction, gratitude, and joy. And our accomplishment doesn’t even have to be spectacular. It can be as mundane as finally getting the laundry done, or the garage cleaned out.
We love the feelings of achieving our goals, of winning, of mastering something. They add to our sense of competence and self-worth. They let us know we’re capable of doing what we set out to do.
And for all these reasons and more, Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, names accomplishment (or achievement) as one of the five pillars of well-being.
The Joy of Achievement
According to a study by Julie Ashby and colleagues, people who are motivated by a desire to achieve tend to be independent and self-sufficient. They believe that effort and skill determine results. Because their goals matter to them, they keep going when obstacles confront them. In fact, obstacles make them turn up the steam.
They thrive in high-stress situations that the less confident might find crushing. And they experience high levels of satisfaction and joy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, was one of these achievement oriented people. He linked happiness itself to accomplishment: “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement,” he said, “and the thrill of creative effort.”
Avoiding Frazzle; Finding Flow
Not everybody is cut out to be a high-achiever. But everyone can claim the joys of accomplishment for themselves to add to their store of well-being.
In his article, “The Sweet Spot for Achievement,” Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., says that to glean maximum joy from accomplishments we need to find the balance between boredom and overwhelming pressure. Then our striving for achievement generates the kind of stress that’s exhilarating and healthy. Find that, and you find yourself in a state of flow. “In flow,” Goleman says, “we channel our positive emotions in an energized pursuit of the task at hand. Our focus is undistracted, and we feel a spontaneous joy, even rapture.”
Even when you’re doing a mundane task, you can intentionally increase the challenge just by challenging yourself to complete it in record time, or to do it flawlessly or with maximum creativity or style. Likewise, if your tasks are too daunting, scale them down. Give yourself more time to complete them or enlist some help.
The key to getting into flow is to keep your attention on what you’re doing without being distracted either by boredom or by pressure. What you want to create is a situation where the demands of the situation are well-matched by your skills, when you’re challenged to use them to the best of your ability without feeling that the situation is way beyond your reach.
The more you can keep your attention on what you’re doing, the more you willaccomplish in any given time. You gather the heightened sense of well-being that achievement more frequently by cultivating your mind to pay attention more fully.
One way to do this is to practice mindfulness, the art of keeping your attention in the present moment. My friend Cristina Diaz suggests describing to yourself what you’re doing as you do it: “This is me, brushing my teeth.” “This is me, washing this blue dish.” “This is me, walking down this sunny sidewalk.”
Another friend of mine plays what she calls “The ‘I Like’ Game.” She looks for things in her immediate environment that she can appreciate. “I like the warmth of the air.” “I like that person’s smile.”
Or just notice, with curiosity, and without judgment, what data your senses are bringing you.
Practicing simple meditation is another excellent way to cultivate your attention. In fact, the word “meditation” actually means “cultivation.” Boiled down to their essence, most meditation techniques involve nothing more than choosing something to focus on—a word or phrase, for example, or your breath. Ideally, you want to be comfortably seated and to close your eyes to minimize distractions. Then simply place your attention on your word or breath, and when you notice that your thoughts have distracted you, gently return to the object of your focus.
If you can do that regularly for as little as two or three minutes at a time to begin with, your ability to keep your attention on what you’re doing will begin to increase. I sometimes practice when I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store, choosing a nearby item to focus my attention on instead of closing my eyes. I’ll stare at it, diffusing my focus, and pay attention to my breath, allowing myself notice objects and movements in my peripheral vision, and coming back to my breath when I’m distracted.
Performance coach and author Caroline Adams Miller says the way to garner the rewards of accomplishment is to ask more of yourself than you think is possible. Hundreds of studies, she notes, have found that the best kind of goals are are “challenging and specific.”
“Mediocre goals,” Miller says, “or no goals lead to poor results and poor well-being. You will go farther and have higher self-esteem if you always shoot for something slightly beyond your grasp.”
It’s a simple formula. Set goals for yourself. Pay attention. Do your best. Challenge yourself to reach higher.
Put it to use in your life and watch it make things more fun. See how much you can do and how well you can do it. The reward is in the doing, and in crossing the finish line with a triumphant, “I did it!” in your heart.
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This is the final article in a series about Martin Seligman’s five pillars of well-being. In addition to Accomplishment, the other four pillars are: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, and Meaning.
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