How to Create Happiness Enhancing Goals

by Stephen Mills on September 23, 2009

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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.

Positive Goals

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.

Harmonious Goals

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.

Flexible Goals

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.

Activity Goals

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.

Summary

“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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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordie Rogers September 24, 2009 at 4:35 am

First time on your blog. Nice to meet you.

Goals do need to be reevaluated from time to time. I’d say at least 3 monthly and especially annually. There’s no use keeping on heading towards a goal that’s no longer viable. It’s good to know how circumstances change but also that we can sometimes change circumstances.
.-= Gordie Rogers´s last blog ..Productivity Tip: Eat A Live Frog In The Morning. =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 4:31 am

Welcome Gordie and thank you very much. Nice to meet you too!

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Vin - NaturalBias September 24, 2009 at 7:36 am

I think this is the best explanation that I’ve come across regarding the important relationship between goals, values, and happiness. Andre Agassi is well known for saying that it’s all about the process and I totally agree. In fact, on my Facebook profile, I have “endless pursuit” as my only listed activity. 🙂

Learning is one of the things that I value most, and I’m well aware of the fact that the accumulated knowledge (the end result of the goal) is not what brings me happiness. It’s the excitement that I experience each time I learn something new, and to continue this experience, I need to continue learning new things!

A truly great article, Stephen!
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..13 Ridiculous Food Labels that Might Be Fooling You =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 4:33 am

Hi Vin and thanks for the compliment. I’m a lifelong learner and I value learning right near the top as well. See ya 🙂

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Christine September 24, 2009 at 8:09 am

First time on the site, and awesome article. Thank you for the motivating post. =)

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 4:33 am

Welcome Christine and thank you!

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Positively Present September 24, 2009 at 8:40 am

This is a really great article not only on creating goals, but on creating happiness goals — and there is a big difference. I love the way you wrote this and I think your words are really going to help me out with my own goal-setting. Thanks, Stephen!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..get happier (.com)! =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 4:34 am

Hi Dani. Thanks for your awesome support 🙂

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Sinikka September 24, 2009 at 9:38 am

Thanks for the insightful post! So often, we focus on goal-setting, and we talk about “good goals” in terms of how “SMART” they are – how (S)pecific, (M)easurable, (A)ttainable, (R)elevant, and (T)ime-bound they are. But what’s so often overlooked is whether or not the goals are “good for us” – and whether or not they’re adding value to our lives.

When I coach my clients on goal setting, I’ll be sure to reference your blog and the research done by Sonja Lyubomirsky, to help remind them to set goals that add value to their lives.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 7:00 am

Hello Sinikka and welcome! You are absolutely right. A smart goal but an irrelevant goal or one that is not aligned with our values doesn’t sound too smart to me.

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Kristin September 24, 2009 at 9:47 am

What you said about flexible goals is very poignant. I just finished the StrengthsFinder 2.0 Assessment and it made me rethink the goals and attributes I had always valued. Sure, I CAN do anything I want, with enough hard work, determination, etc…but what if I found I was intrinsically better at something else, wouldn’t putting all that hard work, determination, etc. into that make more sense? Wouldn’t I be accomplishing something above and beyond the “I worked really hard at this so I have a right to be proud of my effort” outcome?

This is not to say that effort isn’t something to be proud of, more that it’s important to acknowledge the circumstances; that sometimes they change. Stubbornly pursuing something just to pursue it, is really more or less silly in a lot of circumstances. The ability to adjust and continue to grow is something to be proud of indeed.

Thanks for this post!
.-= Kristin´s last blog ..peek at your paradigm =-.

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Vin - NaturalBias September 24, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Hi Kristin, thanks for pointing out StrengthFinder 2.0. I wasn’t aware of it, and after checking it out, I’m going to pick it up later today. I love things that help you understand yourself better. 🙂
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..13 Ridiculous Food Labels that Might Be Fooling You =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 7:06 am

Kristin, thanks so much and welcome to the blog 🙂 Obviously the readers are already finding value in your comments!

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jonathan figaro September 24, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Awesome post. Goals are truly the blueprint to your lives. Without them we walk blinded thoughout the streets with no purpose in tack.
.-= jonathan figaro´s last blog ..14 Principles Timeless To Achieve Your Dreams =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 7:09 am

Jonathan, thanks you very much!

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Alexis Wingate September 24, 2009 at 1:48 pm

This was a wonderful blog post. You made some insightful observations regarding goals and achieving happiness. I concur that when we do what we love we will want to achieve goals in those areas. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. I’ve added you as one of my favorite blog sites!

Visit my blog if you have a chance to be inspired to live a life of your dreams:
http://www.successdiva.wordpress.com/

Thanks,
Alexis, the Success Diva
.-= Alexis Wingate´s last blog ..Free yourself! =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 7:12 am

Alexis, thank you so much and welcome to the Rat Race Trap.

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Belinda Munoz September 25, 2009 at 12:51 am

I really like how you’ve broken goals down into manageable, bite-size pieces. The way I set goals never look neat and clean on paper; I just set them as I go along. It’s reassuring to see that they fit somewhere in your layout. Thanks for this helpful post.
.-= Belinda Munoz´s last blog ..ALL CLEAR: FeedMedic Alert for thehalfwaypoint =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 7:11 am

Hello Belinda and thank you for stopping in and commenting 🙂

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Walter September 25, 2009 at 2:26 am

People have different goals that they want to achieve in life. One thing I’ve discovered to attain happiness, albeit temporary, is the goal of self-discovery. Material aspirations will bring no lasting happiness. Only in finding our self do we stumble happiness. 🙂
.-= Walter´s last blog ..Finding myself beyond my identity =-.

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Stephen Mills September 25, 2009 at 7:14 am

Walter, I totally agree that self-discovery is a great activity to have as a goal. Self-growth is another. Thank you.

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Karl Staib - Work Happy Now September 25, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Yes! Loved this post. We have to connect with goals that give us deeper meaning. If a person doesn’t care about the outcome of his/her goal then they aren’t going to try very hard.
.-= Karl Staib – Work Happy Now´s last blog ..Hard Fun and The Beautiful – The Rain Edition =-.

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Stephen Mills September 26, 2009 at 6:38 am

Thank you Karl!

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BunnygotBlog September 25, 2009 at 10:14 pm

This is very inspiring and I find that in order to be happy and achieve goals you really have to have a clear mind. It is so important to do want you want because you want it and not because other people expect it of you. A lot of parents put the pressure on kids in the wrong way when guiding them as adults.

People also need to realize that when you try to keep up with the “Jones” the material things you have, you probably don’t need. Life could be so simple if they weren’t so materialistic. They never stop to think of the time and money it takes to have extravagances they really don’t need.
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Earth’s Own Little Universe =-.

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Stephen Mills September 26, 2009 at 6:39 am

Thanks Bunny I’m with you all the way on every thing you said 🙂

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Lalitha Brama September 27, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Hi Stephen

Thanks for following me in Twitter. What a wonderful website filled with information to explore our authentic self! Personally I have found happiness in achieving my authentic, intrinsic goals. I really liked the way you have explained about flexible goals. When we set monetary goals, if we can identify what the money would mean to us, it is easier to achieve. Some times, we may not achieve the monetary goal, but achieve the thing. For example we may set a goal to make $100000 to buy a nice car. Instead of making $100000, we may win a car worth $100000 as prize from the company for achieving a certain level. If we acknowledge this and show gratitude, we can lead a happy life.

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Thomas Johnson October 6, 2009 at 10:03 pm

I definitely agree that it’s important to pursue goals that align with your core values.
.-= Thomas Johnson´s last blog ..Finding Your Core Values =-.

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Jessie Siega August 23, 2012 at 3:42 am

It depends on us on how we give happiness to yourself. I think it is our responsibility for our own happiness. We can be happy all the time.
Jessie Siega´s last blog post ..How’s your Sexual Desire?

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