To be happy, set goals for yourself

By setting realistic, attainable goals we positively influence our levels of happiness

Dr Edward Hoffman

A popular idea in business start-up books is that goal-setting is crucial for financial success, and it may well be true. But more importantly, positive psychology has found that goals affect our daily happiness. If you understand this interesting link, the greater your wellbeing is likely to be. How so? When we discuss our hopes and dreams for the future, we’re actually describing our goals. These help us determine where we focus our energy and on what commitments. My research on peak-experiences shows that people often experience joy when they attain a personal goal — whether it involves education, work, or social relations. If you are someone who has not thought of what your goals are, or you do not have a clear idea of what they are, it is likely that you are missing out on a potential source of immense happiness.

Psychologists have discovered that certain types of goals are more effective than others in producing happiness: specifically, those that are personally valued, realistic, and freely chosen. It seems clear enough that pursuing goals that are meaningful to us is more fulfilling than chasing after those that have been imposed by others, or those which we don’t really value.

An influential study led by Dr Ryan Niemiec at the University of Cincinnati found that the attainment of intrinsic — or personally meaningful — goals led to greater wellbeing, but achieving extrinsic goals actually resulted in the opposite. Other studies show that when there is a good fit between a person’s values and goals, they are likely to be more motivated, have higher commitment, and experience a greater sense of wellbeing.

A second important issue concerns approach versus avoidance goals. Approach goals motivate us to move towards something (like, “I want to get a degree in counseling”), on the other hand, avoidance goals motivate us to avoid difficulties, dangers, or fears (such as, “I try to avoid public speaking because it makes me very nervous”). Research conducted on many different cultures reveals that approach goals are more likely to be associated with happiness than avoidance goals. That is, people tend to be happier when they see themselves as moving towards something they value, rather than trying to avoid something difficult or painful. But motivations are complex in nature, and both approach and avoidance goals can make us feel content depending on the situation.

Third, the rate at which people approach their valued goals is important as well. Making adequate — or better than expected — progress toward significant goals evokes a sense of happiness. The rate of progress that a person has made — or expects to make —  towards goals may even be more important than the actual attainment of it; self-acceptable rates of progress are associated with more positive emotions.

Fourth, the impact that our goals may have on our sense of happiness appears to be dependent on their specificity. Highly abstract goals may be detrimental to boosting happiness because it becomes hard to know when they have been achieved. For instance, if your goal is “to be a kind, caring person,” it’s hard to know when you’ve treated people with enough compassion to have reached your goal. But with concrete goals, you know almost immediately if you’ve been successful. An example of one such  goal is “to treat at least one person every day with deliberate kindness and compassion.” By the end of the day, you know for sure if you’ve attained this particular goal.

Finally, an important aspect that concerns the relationships among our goals is, specifically, their degree of ‘fit’ versus conflict. Having more congruence among different goals and less conflict among competing goals is associated with a greater feeling of happiness. For instance, people who have eight or ten major goals in life which are all deemed “very important” may inadvertently create conflict among these goals due to insufficient time to fully accomplish them all. In short, the popular wish to “have it all” in terms of career, money, family, community involvement and leisure may actually aggravate internal conflict between different goals, lowering our day-to-day happiness.

Based on these scientific findings, you might find it useful to ask yourself: What are my goals for the next six months?  How about the following year and the next three years? It’s helpful to compose a written list and remember that it’s best to create goals that are realistic, attainable, and measurable. And now, begin!

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org                                                      

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