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The Relationship between Goals and Happiness


The importance of having goals in life is a deeper topic than one might think. The pursuit of a goal leads to a struggle against whatever is standing in the way of reaching it. Believe it or not, struggling and seeing progress from struggle is one of the major sources of meaning in life, and a sense of meaning in life is one of the requirements for happiness.

If you don't believe me, spend some time thinking about your life. When were you happy? When were you eager to get up in the morning? When did you feel you were growing as a person? We often have so many activities in our lives that it is difficult to identify one or two things that make us happy over a long period of time. But, psychologists are now aware that the happiness we attain by reaching a goal is only temporary. Often, soon after reaching a goal, we actually experience a let-down feeling of, "Is this all there is to this?". For example, the happiness we feel when we get the new job, the new girlfriend or boyfriend, or the new house usually only lasts for about six months. Then we are right back to our usual level of happiness.

In contrast, long-term happiness occurs when we are making long-term progress toward a personally-chosen goal. For example, meaningful work involves a job in which we want to accomplish something and in which we are making noticeable progress toward this accomplishment, not a job where we are simply told what to do, regardless of how we feel about what we are doing. Examples of people engaged in meaningful work could include a doctor or nurse who wants to and is successfully easing patients' suffering, an engineer who wants to and is engaged in building a rocket that will take people to Mars, a businessman who wants to and is successfully creating a growing business, a fireman who wants to and is saving people's lives, a father who wants to and is supporting his family and making progress toward sending his children to college. In each of these examples, an individual is engaged in an activity that is helping him reach a personal goal. A boring, soul-sucking job is one in which a person is given a series of tasks that he doesn't want to do.

If you think about your life, you may discover that many of the times in your life when you were unhappy were those times when you had few or no goals. Perhaps this includes a time when you were in a stifling situation and had no clear plan for getting out. Perhaps you were in a boring job where you were micromanaged to the point where you couldn't accomplishing nearly as much as you could have with more freedom. Perhaps you were in a dead-end relationship, or you were unemployed and watching daytime TV all day. Perhaps you were "going through the motions" in a church in which you no longer believed and were seeing no personal spiritual growth resulting from this.

The best goals are those that motivate positive struggle. By the word "struggle", I mean working or striving toward a goal. This may, but does not have to include a component of suffering. By "positive struggle", I mean struggle that enables a person to improve himself or his circumstances in life. Struggle may make him physically stronger or faster, or more knowledgeable, more capable of dealing with life, or perhaps more financially independent. Some examples could be learning to play a musical instrument, body building, jogging, learning how to be a great manager, practicing to be a great tennis player, becoming a better husband or father, or studying hard in college.

Negative struggle is the type a person does simply to avoid negative consequences or because someone requires him to--like paying off a loan, serving the remainder of a prison sentence, or bringing up his GPA so he won't flunk out of school. But even negative struggle is better than not struggling at all, because individuals are capable of improving their attitudes about negative struggle. For example, a prisoner serving a sentence can look at his sentence as a waste of part of his life, or he can choose to look at it as a time to read good books, educate himself, understand what he did wrong in his life, and form a new life plan with new goals.

A word of warning is needed here. Perfectionism can motivate people to struggle greatly, even when they are seeing no results. The pursuit of unattainable perfection is actually a great source of unhappiness for many, because happiness actually comes from seeing that we are making progress toward a goal, not simply from struggling regardless of the outcome of that struggle. When progress stops, as it must eventually in the pursuit of perfection, our happiness ends. So, the greatest happiness comes from setting and making progress toward attainable goals that we want to reach.

Most people will probably not want to hear this, but my theory about why struggling to accomplish goals makes us happy is that this is biologically programed into us. I probably shouldn't call this my theory, because I'm sure I'm not the first to propose it. The emotions that drive us are not something that we have more than a modicum of control over. Changing our perspective on a situation does have an effect on our emotions, but emotions are very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to control completely. The reason they are so difficult to control is that emotions are biologically programmed into us. We are biologically programed to want to better ourselves--to want to become more capable, more powerful, more successful, more knowledgeable. The bottom line, I think, is that these things are programed into us to improve our chances of living to produce successful offspring. The topic of our biological programing and the extent to which most people are oblivious to it is one that I'll save for another article.

I'll end this article by saying that if you are bored, lonely, or depressed, setting and working toward positive, attainable goals can help move you in the direction that your biological programing is urging you to go in. An increase in happiness is the carrot-on-the-stick that your biological programing uses to point you in the direction it wants you to go, and happiness lasts as long as you are striving for what it wants.

Two excellent books written by psychologists on the topic of happiness are The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt and Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.



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