Why It's Incredibly Hard To Celebrate Our Small Wins (And Why We Really Should)
Can you pinpoint the exact last time you fist-pumped? We often see competitive athletes do it, and you probably did it as a kid all the time—a reflexive physical gesture of pure celebration at a positive outcome or personal triumph. And if you take one thing from this article, it's this: Do it more.
Why it's so important to celebrate small, everyday wins.
While it's easy to simply go through our days doing our best and only celebrating the big stuff—getting engaged, a promotion, a new home—clinical psychologist Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP, suggests adopting a different approach: "One of the things I tell people all the time is to celebrate everything," she says.
"Our life is made up of the little choices," she explains. "When we make a decision and then carry it out, we're connecting glutamate and dopamine in our brains and reinforcing the neural pathway that says, 'Yes, I can accomplish something.'"
The way that we rewire our brains is through repetition.
The idea is that, when we feel good about the seemingly innocuous small steps—eating a healthy lunch, refilling our water bottle, making it to the gym—that neural pathway becomes stronger, helping us form long-term habits and cultivate a growth mindset (or the tendency to believe that we can grow and achieve our goals). We can actually change behaviors in this way, says Hallett, who puts it like this: "Whatever you repeat, you strengthen. The way we rewire our brains is through repetition—it's the basis of neuroplasticity, which is what helps us learn and implement patterns faster and better."
In other words, habitually celebrating those micro moments of victory today can make us more likely to achieve the big successes tomorrow.
On the flip side, is it so bad to shrug off the small wins?
Hallett compares the way we tend to treat these little steps to the way we treat loose pennies in our wallet: "We see them as meaningless and give them away, even though a lot of pennies together translate to real, usable amounts of cash over time."
So while it makes total sense to value the small victories, is there actually any harm in writing them off?
"All of us, for good reason evolutionarily, have a negativity bias," says Hallett, meaning we're more likely to see what's negative than not. "By the principle of neuroplasticity—aka whatever we repeat we strengthen—by not celebrating our small wins, we're actually increasing the likelihood of that negativity bias. It's not net neutral; it's net negative," according to Hallett, and as a result, we start to see the world in a more challenging kind of way.
It seems simple—low effort, huge payout. Why is it so hard to celebrate our small wins?
If you've ever thought, "I should be exercising, so what's the big deal when I do?" you're not alone. "People really struggle with celebrating the little things because we have an expectation that we should already be doing them," explains Hallett.
An example: If someone says you're supposed to drink 64 ounces of water in a day when you usually don't drink any at all, you might feel as though you've failed if you didn't do so, or you might discount the few sips you had because of this expectation. "Our own negative thought processes derail us, and we take away our own success," Hallett points out. The reality is, you've made progress, and even taking those few sips is a win worth celebrating.
People really struggle with celebrating the little things because we have an expectation that we should already be doing them.
A more effective approach is to turn the expectation (drinking eight glasses of water daily) into a longer-term goal, break it down into the smallest components possible that are achievable, commit to doing those steps, and then recognize when you do. "That's literally the process of habit formation," says Hallett.
It helps majorly to set yourself up for success, and in this case, that's getting yourself a reusable bottle. One company called Drinkfinity is making this goal even easier (and honestly, way more fun) with a stylishly designed bottle for flavorful, functional pods that infuse your water with vitamins, electrolytes, and caffeine. Think of it as the ultimate all-in-one hydration sidekick for whatever is happening in your day. Trust us: The flavors, from Mango Coconut Water to Watermelon Lemonade, will keep you coming back.
So, how do we tangibly celebrate our small wins?
Hallett suggests picking one or two small things you want to accomplish every day. Then:
1. Recognize when you do them. "Your tendency will be to do it and then dismiss it, saying, 'Meh, what difference does this make?'" says Hallett. Take a breath and remind yourself that you met your goal. She suggests either keeping a small success journal, telling someone about it (preface it with "I'm really working on x, and I did y and z today"), or saying, "I'm proud of me!"
2. Reframe effort as a win. If you don't make that goal, don't beat yourself up. "A growth mindset accepts that there will be struggles and challenges along the way, and these are learning opportunities," says Hallett. Use a setback to increase your self-awareness with a focus on self-compassion. "This a chance to own it, understand why it happened, and get back into planning and action mode with a better strategy."
The bottom line? When we let ourselves celebrate these small wins, even if it's something that initially feels super small or silly, "we're bringing in joy, increasing our self-esteem, and we get a massive payout for doing that," Hallett says. So yeah, do that fist-pump.