Recently Succeed At Something? Celebrating Is Good For Your Brain

Recently Succeed At Something? Celebrating Is Good For Your Brain
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This three-syllable, nine-letter word is a familiar concept yet a relatively alien practice for many of my coaching clients.

“Who, me? Celebrate?” is generally the response to my question, “How are you planning to acknowledge yourself for this accomplishment?”

Rather than taking time to bask in the glory of their latest achievement, they’re already moving on to the next big thing.

High achievers, please note: This behavior is not healthy.

Regardless of the size of your accomplishment, you should take time to recognize it, relish it and figure out how you can replicate some or all of the steps for future successes.

Your brain’s reward system will automatically help you do this — if you let it do its work. Even better, you can easily boost yourself and your brain to prepare for more successes.

All too often, though, individuals will interrupt the workings of their brain’s reward system, either ignoring the “feel-good” natural chemicals their brain releases or becoming addicted to them along with stress. Both situations cause trouble for individuals and their team members.

Before addressing the trouble and how to overcome it, let’s cover some basics about the brain’s reward system.

As an example, say you hit a project milestone on time and on budget and note your accomplishment. You get a hit of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter, sending signals to other neurons that serve as a pleasurable reward. These neurons that fire together now start getting wired together in your brain.


When you experience the dopamine reward, your brain pays attention to what you did to deserve your “feel-good” moment. That includes the brain calculating what’s needed to repeat that action and move toward achieving your goals. The dopamine also plays a role in regulating your attention, learning and movement.

Dopamine does have a dark side. High levels of dopamine are related to addictive, novelty-seeking behaviors. Some experts now consider continuous goal attainment to be one of those behaviors—not as serious as illegal drugs or prescription painkillers, but still bad for your health.

As an example, let’s say you work in a stressful environment. Your body responds by releasing cortisol, referred to as the "stress hormone." The role of cortisol is to increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system, and aid in metabolism so you can run from a bear or a bad boss.

If you’re under frequent or constant stress, however, your cortisol levels not only stay spiked, but the pathways in your brain can hardwire to create a vicious cycle. In this case, you tend to stay in an ongoing state of “fight or flight.”

Dopamine still releases when you achieve goals, but the stress won’t go away. And in another case, the neurons that fire together get wired together, meaning the stress and the dopamine rush can become connected.

Many of us who have coached chronically stressed people note they’re even less likely to celebrate their achievements than other high performers. It’s as if these stressed individuals are even more obsessed with going after their next goal to get yet another fix of dopamine, which was observed Sunnie Giles, coach, consultant and author of the New Science of Radical Innovation: The Six Competencies Leaders Need to Win in a Complex World.

The elevated cortisol levels associated with chronic stress are nothing to sneeze at. They can lead to health problems, including a weakened immune system, hypertension, hardening and narrowing of the arteries, and depression.

So how do you avoid these problems and instead enjoy the benefits of the brain’s reward system?

The first step is awareness. Recognize and embrace the science of celebration. Acknowledging and celebrating your accomplishments helps you and your brain make a strong connection between the achievement you’re celebrating and the behaviors that got you there.

If celebrating is hard to remember or practice, picture athletes and how they mark their victories. Remember victory dances, hugs, fist pumps and bumps, and everything in between.

The second step is to experiment. Find ways to celebrate that are meaningful to you. You want the celebration to feel good, which serves as its own reward. This helps your brain rewire and reinforce the behavior. As an added benefit, when you’re celebrating, you’ll also be more positive, open to new ideas and experiences, and able to think more clearly.

One simple action that most team members tend to like is a working celebration, which is a short debrief meeting followed by favorite foods, drinks and conversations. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on how you all worked together, to share stories, and to relax and bask in your accomplishments.

For instance, the task force of a national organization I recently supported decided to have two celebrations, one after the board of directors approved the proposal we had spent nine months developing, and the second one about four weeks later on the evening before the vote. (Yes, we were taking a chance, but we were confident we would get the votes, and it ended up being unanimous!)

The first celebration was a small party after our debrief meeting. The second celebration featured decadent desserts and champagne plus a delightful surprise. The staff gave us each a memory book they had made of photos chronicling our travels, meetings and meals together, a memento to treasure.

For another group I recently worked with, we took the time and effort to write notes of appreciation for each other. That act helped us reflect on what we valued about each other as we worked together.

To support you and your brain, these celebrations don’t have to be elaborate, just intentional and sincere. Enjoy!

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