If you read my last article, The Circumstances of Happiness, you may not be surprised to learn that achieving or failing to achieve your goals has little impact on your lasting happiness. I know a lot of you are going to disagree, but the research is there to prove it. It’s that hedonic adaptation again. The effect of goal achievement is short-lived. Achievement of goals contribute to success, but not to long-term well-being and happiness.
Having vs. Achieving Goals
Having the right kind of goals is a proven and powerful way to help you find the happiness that you seek. It’s the journey and not the destination. You need goals to provide you direction, not to provide you with the fruits of their achievement. What you are looking for are goals that enhance the experience of the present and not goals that give you some end-state that you think is going to make you happy when you arrive at the destination.
You need to have goals, but you don’t necessarily need to attain them if your objective is your long-term happiness. That’s a mind-bender, but it’s true. In reality this result of modern research is a magnificent gift handed to you on a golden platter. It means you are free to take risks. Failure to achieve a goal will not destroy the happiness you gained in its pursuit.
What Kind of Goals Produce Happiness?
All goals are not created equal in their happiness producing impact. Pursuit of the wrong kind of goals will not make you happy. Since you are going through the effort to create and pursue goals, why not pursue the kind of goals that lead to long-term happiness and well-being?
What kinds of goals produce happiness? My favorite treatment of this subject is by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The following basic outline is from her outstanding writing on the subject.
Intrinsic and Authentic Goals
Intrinsic goals are goals that are personally meaningful and satisfying. They are goals that are chosen for their own sake. Goals that involve personal development or connection to others are great choices. Intrinsic goals are freely chosen and deeply personal. They are something you really want to do. They are not the result of external conditioning, but come from from deep within your soul.
In four words: Do what you love.
If your goals are to go to college, get a job, get married, have children, and live in the suburbs, make darn sure you are pursing those goals because they are meaningful to you and not because of social or familial conditioning.
Intrinsic and authentic goals align with your core values. While they were spoken with a different meaning for the word “soul”, the words seem very appropriate here:
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — Mark 8:36
Money, beauty, or popularity are generally extrinsic goals. They are pursued for an external effect. They are pursued as a means to an end and not for their own sake. Happiness is unlikely to be found in them.
Lyubomirsky calls these approach goals. Are you moving towards something or are you trying to avoid something? Do you want to be healthy so you can live a vibrant and rich life or so you don’t feel tired? It may seem like a small difference, but the way you frame your goals in your mind makes a big difference. Are you losing weight so you can be healthy and thus live a vibrant and rich life, or are you losing weight to avoid disapproving looks from others? This is similar to the principle I described in Positive vs Negative Decisions.
This may seem obvious but don’t pursue goals that conflict with each other. Simultaneously maintaining goals to start your own business and spend a lot of time with your family may conflict with one another.
This is contrary to some current self-development dogma, but the fact of the matter is that rigid goals can create problems because we continue to pursue them even when the conditions under which we are pursing them have changed. We often stubbornly stick to goals because we’ve been told not to be a quitter or that we can do “anything”. It’s my personal opinion that attachment to an outcome we have decided upon is a common cause of a lot of our frustration and unhappiness.
I’m most definitely not suggesting we constantly abandon our goals and change them every time the wind changes direction. I’m pretty stubborn myself when it comes to dogged pursuit of something. What I am suggesting is that you face up to the fact that the world changes and you change. It’s not a sign of weakness to change when the situation calls for it. In fact it is a sign of strength and takes courage. Appropriate flexibility is a skill that will take you a very long way. I am learning to hold my goals quite loosely and it is paying off in a lot more authentic happiness.
Seeking to better your circumstances is subject to hedonic adaptation and thus only a temporary spike in happiness. Taking a job you don’t like to make a lot of money is not going to make you happy. A better type of goal is an activity goal. In other words simply pursue an activity. Do you like to read? Pursue reading as a goal. Do you want to help others? Pursue volunteer activities as a goal. Do you want to learn something? Pursue learning as an activity goal in itself.
“The pursuit of goals that are intrinsic, authentic, approach-oriented, harmonious, activity-based, and flexible will deliver more happiness than the pursuit of goals that are extrinsic, inauthentic, avoidance-oriented, conflicting, circumstance-based, or rigid. This mouthful of words is based on decades of research.” — Sonja Lyubomirsky
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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