How to Goal Strive to Make You Happier
The science is in on how goals impact our happiness, and it’s a bit nuanced. In this article, we’ll talk about:
- What we know about how goal setting impacts your happiness
- What’s more important – setting goals, pursuing goals, or achieving them?
- What KIND of goals should you be setting?
- What happens when we procrastinate on our goals?
- How can you ensure you don’t give up on your goals?
- Should you make it your goal to get to the bottom of this article?
Goals and Happiness
One thing we can say up front is that goals impact happiness. That’s crystal clear. Successful goal striving is beneficial for subjective well-being (Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001). In fact, just having them, even if we don’t reach them, provides us with a sense of direction and meaning (Emmons, 1996; Klinger, 1977; Little, 1989).
That being said, focusing on pursuing goals is better for you than focusing on achieving them. Focusing on the process (dietary behaviors) rather than on the outcome (weight loss) is associated with more successful goal pursuit and achievement (Freund and Hennecke, 2012). And it is in fact the rate of progress toward your goal, not its attainment, drives higher well-being (Hsee and Abelson, 1991).
It’s not all good news. It turns out procrastinating on your goals can be really harmful. It’s associated with negative mood states such as:
- Depression and anxiety (e.g., Ferrari, 1991; Martin, Flett, Hewitt, Krames, & Szanto, 1996; Senécal, Koestner, & Vallerand, 1995)
- Shame and guilt (e.g., Blunt & Pychyl, 2005; Fee & Tangney, 2000; Giguère, Sirois, & Vaswani, 2016)
- Negative self-blame (Sirois & Kitner, 2015)
- Negative self-evaluations in general (Flett, Stainton, Hewitt, Sherry, & Lay, 2012; McCown, Blake, & Keiser, 2012)
- Low self-esteem (Ferrari, 1994, 2000)
- Low levels of self-compassion (Sirois, 2014)
- Distress (e.g., Flett et al., 2012; Richardson, Abraham, & Bond, 2012)
- Poor overall mental health (Stead, Shanahan, & Neufeld, 2010)
To summarize, to get the value of your goal process, you must not only set them, you must make progress toward them and not procrastinate on them. But what about achieving them? Shouldn’t you strive for that?
In short, no! In fact, people who see goal attainment as a prerequisite for their happiness might ruminate in the case of failure, leading to unhappiness. Finally, even if you did achieve them, according to the hedonic treadmill theory, the positive effects of reaching them are likely to be short-lived (Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999).
What Types of Goals You Should Set
Setting and striving is good, but it also matters what types of goals you set. You must have the right goals – ones you WANT to make progress on
First and foremost, your goal needs a "Why." Make sure your goal is BIG enough to motivate you! If you think you have your goal in mind but you DON'T have your "Why," try the 5 Why's exercise. "Why do I want to do this goal? And why is that? And why is that?" And so on until you feel you've reached the bottom. That bottom is your “Why.” This will become your driving force, continuing to motivate you in good times and bad.
The goals you set should challenge you to learn and grow. If you’re not challenged, you’ll tire of it. What new information or skills will you acquire in the pursuit of your goals? Make sure as you set your goal, you’re asking yourself that question.
That being said, don't set goals that are too unrealistic. Your goals should stretch you, but you should have a decent chance at achieving them (Locke and Latham, 2002). Along those same lines, don't set too many. We recommend you start with just ONE goal. You don’t want to wear yourself out!
Concrete goals are perceived as more urgent and are more likely to engage you in goal pursuit (McCrea, 2008). Make sure your goals are concrete, measurable, and timebound. Instead of "lose weight," try "lose 20 pounds by December.”
What kind of substance should your goals have? Be sure not to set them so narrowly that you neglect other important dimensions in life. (See our Balance month.) Goals that satisfy basic psychological needs, like a sense of belonging, are better for well-being. What needs are most important to you? Don't focus on avoidance goals (Stop snacking on sugary treats). Approach/gain goals are far better (Eat more carrots). Finally, goals that converge with underlying motives, like affiliation, are better for well-being. What underlying motives sit deep in your core? (Brunstein, Schultheiss, & Grässman, 1998; Deci & Ryan, 2008).
Finally, you must be WILLING TO COMMIT to taking the steps toward your goal. If you're not willing, then it might not be the right goal.
How to Ensure You Don’t Give Up On Your Goals
In order to ensure you don’t give up on your goals, you need a process and a toolset in place to set you up for success. That’s what this section is all about. What are the tools can you use to ensure you continue to make great progress without it wearing you down?
- First and foremost, make sure you have the RIGHT goals. See the section above!
- Create an Action Plan: Build an action plan for pursuing your goals by chunking them up into smaller parts. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, "A goal without a plan is just a wish."
- Step 1: Milestones. First, from your ONE goal over ONE year, identify 10-12 milestones. These don't necessarily align with the 12 months on the calendar. Prioritize these! You need to make sure you're working on them in the right order.
- Step 2: 60-Day Plan. Next, build your 60-day plan. Now in order to achieve all of your milestones in the next 12 months, what do you feel would be necessary in the next 60 days? Pull from the top of your milestones.
- Step 3: 1-Month Plan. Now do the same thing for 1 month. Pick off items from your 60-day plan you feel you would need to do in the next 30 days. Ideally, you would have about 4 prioritized items in your 1-month plan, the first gets done in week 1, the second gets done in week 2, etc.
- Step 4: Weekly Planning. This is where the planning actually starts to turn into ACTION. Hold a weekly strategy session with yourself. Come up with your weekly plan. If you need to write this down, you should do it somewhere you'll see it each day.
- Step 5: Daily Plan. You can even build a daily plan! As you start each day, look at your weekly plan and commit yourself to the top items on that list for today.
- Step 6: Repeat! Continue to do this for the remainder of the year!
- Take it Step-by-Step. And you're off! Lookout for signs of procrastination, avoidance, resistance, distraction, or low motivation. If you find yourself falling into that trap, ask yourself why? Do you need to change the goal? Your environment? You need to be aware of your thoughts and identify what's holding you back.
- Create Accountability. You need to create accountability. Ask yourself these questions:
- How will I hold myself accountable? What method works for me?
- Reminders in my phone?
- Writing down what I'm committing to on a piece of paper and posting it somewhere I'll see it?
- Should I identify an accountability partner — a friend or family member that I care about who can help hold me accountable?
- Should I join an in-person meetup group or a social group on Facebook or another social platform?
- Remove Cues and Triggers. Much of our behavior is automatic. That's part of what makes behavior change so hard. Understanding and removing behavior triggers starts with being aware of them. So start by noticing when you miss the mark on your behavior. What cue or trigger failed you? Next, you’ll need willpower. It's a muscle that can grow, so build that muscle! When you experience the trigger, jump on it! Do it in 5 seconds or less. Don't give your brain time to think about it. That being said, it’s HARD to exercise willpower all the time. It will wear you out. So ask yourself how you can change your ENVIRONMENT to where you WON’T be exposed to the WRONG triggers, and you WILL be exposed to the RIGHT ones.
- Establish Some Rewards. Of course, being intrinsically motivated is the backbone for success here. But that being said, granting yourself some rewards is an integral part of the behavior change process, and something you definitely should do! Just make sure the reward is balanced with the behavior it’s rewarding.
Goals can be literally life-changing. With the right goals in place, and with a framework of tools and motivations to keep you in pursuit of them and making progress, you’ll get so much more satisfaction and success out of your life!
We hope you find these tools and processes helpful for your goal pursuit, and we wish you the best!