• Kimberly

HAPPINESS 4 of 5: When achieving goals actually makes us more miserable

We get told all the time that we need to set goals for success in life, work, and relationships. And it's true that setting and achieving goals helps us not to stagnate. But sometimes setting goals leaves us feeling worse than before.

A recent study examined exactly which types of goals make people happier, and which ones leave people feeling worse. They tracked students over the course of a semester and found that some of the goal-setters were less happy, more anxious, more distressed in general about life at the end of the semester than they had been at the beginning of the semester.

Some of the goal-setters, though, had the complete opposite response. They were more happy and less distressed about life in general than they had been before they set their goals at the beginning of the semester.

And the crazy thing is, those two reactions didn't have anything to do with whether the goals were met or not. Some of the students met their goals, others didn't, but that didn't have anything to do with their change in happiness. It was something about the goals themselves, not their achievement, that made the students more (or less) happy.

So what was it? Did it have to do with whether the goals were well-formed, or realistic, or how they were tracked, or whether they used an app or a notebook or if they had social accountability?


The difference between the two groups came from whether the goals they set were self-focused ("I want more instagram followers") or other-focused ("I want to be a better friend"). The students who had chosen self-focused goals were more anxious and distressed at the end of the semester, whether or not they had achieved their goals.

The students who had chosen other-focused goals, goals that motivated them to be alive to others' needs, were less anxious and distressed than they had been before. And again, it didn't matter whether or not they had actually achieved their goals. The experience of having a goal that focused their attention on the needs of others was sufficient to improve their overall life happiness.

The researchers suggested that the two types of goals functioned as self-perpetuating cycles. People with self-focused goals did less to support others, which made them unhappier, which made them focus more on themselves, which made them do even less to support others, which made them even more unhappy, etc. The other group, though, started giving more support to others as a result of their outward-focused goals, which made them happier, which made them more capable of supporting others, which made them even more happy, etc. (If you missed the post about how helping others makes us happier than being helped, click here.)

Now I, personally, am in a position where I have to self-promote (gag) for my job. Most of us, in some sense, actually do need to improve others' perceptions of us in order to succeed--we need good performance reviews or good Yelp ratings or business recommendations. So how do we merge that reality with this research?

Articulate goals in terms of how they benefit others.

For example, I shouldn't state my goal as: "My goal is to have my son trust me." I should state it as: "My goal is to support and honor my son every day."

This way, not only do we get the happiness benefit of providing help and support to others, but we also avoid the danger of having goals whose success depends on other people's decisions (which we cannot control).

I may never get my son to trust me, but it is always within my power to support and honor him. Getting better at that is likely to lead to trust, sure. But even if it doesn't, I can still achieve my goal and feel better about myself and my life when I choose to honor him no matter how he responds.

(More examples are in the cute little infographic to the right.)

But the point is, as with everything, focusing on ourselves does not make us happier. Focusing on others and truly seeing them as people is what really frees us from our misery and lets us be happier, gentler, kinder, and more resilient.

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