Why You Need to Set Goals, Even if Achieving Them Doesn't Make You Happier
Why doesn’t goal achievement make us happier? When we finally accomplish what we want or create the life we designed, we feel excited and ecstatic. But as the days and weeks go by, our emotional state goes back to baseline.
Hedonic Adaptation is a neurological process that makes humans less sensitive to new stimuli and their new reality. Reaching the important goal or getting the desired outcome initially makes us happier. But we soon get used to it and become desensitized. We start to see it as part of our routine, daily life.
We adapt to both negatives and positives in life. Our desires get redirected to something new once we accomplish the goal.
It’s hard to stay present with what is when you’re thinking about what’ s next. Real joy comes from being in the now.
Disappointment and even depression may set in when we rely on goal achievement to make us happy.
Goals can get you into a limiting, either-or mindset. I’ll be happy when I build a 7-figure business, I get the promotion, I run the 10k race in 50 minutes, or I take the dream vacation.
In his bestselling book, Atomic Habits, James Clear writes, “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your systems instead.”
He argues that you would still succeed even if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your systems. He says, “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
Success and progress, though, can feel hollow if they are not tied to a big dream, a clear vision or core values. Goal setting is key to discovering your dreams, clarifying your vision, and defining your values. And without the right goals, how do you choose the system, design the process, get the key ingredients, and direct your attention?
While systems are best for making long-term progress, it still makes no sense to forget about goals to get better results. Although goals are for short-term wins from a certain perspective, this doesn’t mean you get to neglect them and go all in on systems.
On any journey, it’s hard to know which path to take unless you have a desired destination. For your GPS or map to work for you, you need to have a sense of where you’re going.
You could explore, experiment, and stay open to opportunities. You could refine and improve your systems and commit to the process. But without a target to aim at, you can’t really make significant progress on any significant thing, whatever that might be. There’s a big difference between taking one step in 10 different directions versus 10 steps in one direction.
While I love Atomic Habits for making habits and systems, I think it downplays the importance of setting goals.
As you gain knowledge, build experience, and develop awareness, and as conditions change, the goal post will keep moving. Goals are not a problem if you know their limits. It’s not wrong to set and target a goal, as long as you pace yourself and understand goal achievement won’t bring lasting happiness.
Goals cannot fix internal, existential problems. They can lead to distracting busy work, instead of purposeful, important work. They do not always create desired results or positive outcomes. They are not reliable sources of true joy.
Even though goals don’t make you happy or happier, you still need to make them for different reasons.
Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.
So why do we need to set goals even though they often set us on a hedonic treadmill?
Reason #1 is goal setting can make you more resilient and stronger.
Happiness leads to success, instead of the other way around, says Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, psychologist and author of the book Happier No Matter What. He defines happiness as the experience of wholebeing.
You enjoy not just positive emotions, but also embrace painful emotions that are inevitable in life.
Happiness and unhappiness are not binary conditions. Happiness falls on a continuum from negative, through neutral to positive.
When you strengthen your psychological immune system, you build more than resilience. You become Antifragile. This is Resilience 2.0 You don’t return to your original form after enduring the stressful event. The hardship makes you stronger, better, and happier as a result.
The paradox of happiness is: the more we value it and want it, the more elusive it is. To avoid this paradox and to foster post-traumatic growth (PTG), you pursue happiness indirectly, instead of chase it directly.
You cultivate 5 key elements that build antifragility and lead to happiness.
In Dr. Ben-Shahar’s SPIRE MODEL, the elements are:
Spiritual wellbeing – living mindfully and having a sense of purpose and meaning.
Physical wellbeing – having a mind-body connection and taking care of your body through physical exercise and rest and recovery.
Intellectual wellbeing – setting the right challenges, cultivating curiosity, and learning new things.
Relational wellbeing – spending quality time with people you care about and people who care about you, as well as having a healthy relationship with yourself.
Emotional wellbeing – developing the ability to deal with painful emotions and being grateful for what is.
If you stay in your comfort zone, you will have fewer opportunities to create these 5 elements. Sticking with what’s certain and predictable might keep you safe, but doesn’t strengthen you for challenges and setbacks.
Systems and habits work for familiar problems. But to become your more resilient self, and to reframe and solve new problems, you need goals.
Having goals that meet your highest needs, wants and desires encourage you to move into your growth zone. While systems and habits can propel you toward a better, happier life, your goals can also pull you toward it.
Reason #2 is goal setting adds meaning to your life.
While reaching a goal might lead to only temporary change, working toward a well-designed one makes life more meaningful. Your highest, most important goals are linked to what you value most.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, said our core motivation is the search for meaning in life. In his 1946 book that was published in English as Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
Being Jewish, he, and his father, mother, and brother were sent to a concentration camp during World War II. All perished, except him. He found the search for meaningful achievement, not the achievement itself, is what really matters.
There is tension between striving to improve things that you control and radically accepting things that you do not. The two states can and do co-exist.
You don’t have to get rid of tension and forget about goals to have a meaningful life in the here and now.
When you acknowledge that external goals are largely outside your control, you can stay non-attached to them. Your efforts might not lead to desired outcomes, which are affected by outside factors. You can strive and then let go.
It’s more meaningful to focus on intrinsic goals that you control. I can decide to make at least one YouTube video each week or each month that meets a certain standard. I either make this a priority or not.
But I don’t control the number of views each video gets. At the time of this recording, my last video on how to get out of a mental slump has 1000+ views. The video before that, on the truth about productivity advice, has 300+ views. And an older video I did on how to stay focused has 4,000+ views.
I invested as much time and effort on each video, but the outcomes were different. I have limited control over how the YouTube algorithm and audience respond. So I focus on what I can influence, like the choice of topic, visual and audio quality, show notes, title and thumbnail.
Wanting or desiring a certain thing isn’t what makes us unhappy. Rather, it’s the belief that we will be happy only if that thing happens.
Don’t postpone or restrict happiness to when you have accomplished the goal. With the right approach, you learn, grow and develop through the journey itself. The experience is the reward.
Reason #3 is goal setting can boost motivation, spark inspiration and trigger action.
When you set goals, you define your priorities and decide what you will do and what you will not do. When you’re motivated, you have a reason to take action. When you’re inspired, you feel excited to take action.
Motivation and inspiration don’t have to precede action. It’s more of a circular relationship in which one action can motivate and inspire you take another action.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said establishing desired outcomes and targets motivate human behavior.
Pioneers in Goal Setting Theory, Gary Latham and Edwin Locke in the 1960s examined Aristotle’s concept. They found that goals are the easiest way to increase motivation and enhance performance.
Striving to create spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational or emotional wellbeing is a goal by itself. A goal doesn’t have to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound).
A goal could be to live more mindfully. The subgoal is making a simple meal, noticing the changes in seasons, shoveling snow, or browsing books at the library with mindfulness.
A goal could be to engage in active recovery. The subgoal is enjoying a board game, enjoying the sunlight, or enjoying play time with your kids whether in the fall or winter season.
A goal could be to turn your home into a sanctuary. The subgoal is adding an essential oil diffuser for aromatherapy or hanging chimes for sound healing.
When you set goals that improve your whole being, you can more easily stay on track and get back on track with your intentions.
Reason #4 is goal setting can help you focus and get into a flow state.
Clear goals are your small, daily steps to take. They’re on your to-do or priorities list. They are not your mission- level goals or your high-level goals, says Steven Kottler, author of The Art of Impossible.
Goal setting is a guiding force in your system. It’s a core part of your system, or at the very least, a close partner to it.
When you plan and pre-decide what to accomplish on a given day, you know where to place your attention. Focusing on one high-cognitive task increases concentration and improves performance.
It helps you reach the state of flow, which renowned psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (MIHI CHEEK_SEN-MEE HI) defines as the optimal experience in which you’re so absorbed in the activity that nothing else matters. You fully enjoy and focus on the task instead of worry about the results and outcomes.
Reason #5 is goal setting leads to peak moments. It gives you a positive lens through which to view the world.
Peak moments are memorable, meaningful and outside the norm. They could last a month or a few seconds. They often relate to a new job, a new relationship, a relocation, or a dream vacation.
In their book, The Power of Moments, brothers Chip and Dan Heath write that peak moments have 4 elements in common, but do not always have all four every time.
The first element is Elevation, which rises above the everyday and brings an element of surprise. They can include going out to see a play at the theater, observing landmarks, sights and sounds, and savoring a cup of mocha at a cozy restaurant.
The second element is Insight, which rewires your understanding of yourself and the world. They are experiences that help you make neural connections, expand or sharpen your perspective, and drop limiting beliefs.
The third element is Pride, which captures you at your best, such as winning a race, earning a professional license, or launching a new product.
The fourth element is Connection, which are shared, synchronized moments with others. They include social events and social interactions that enhance your wellbeing.
Goals steer you toward peak moments. Even the anticipation of reaching the goal can release feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, which boost our mood and motivation.
Goals nurture a growth mindset to learn new skills, expand knowledge, and practice creativity.
Good habits are just one tool to create success, progress, and happiness. While systems are essential, goals are also crucial for designing a vibrant life.
Goal setting often gets a bad rap, especially when it’s seen as separate from system design. If we feel like a failure when we don’t meet goals, it’s because we’re overestimating their power. And if we think meeting goals is only a short-term win, it’s because we’re underestimating their power.
For more on how to skillfully move out of your comfort zone to reach big goals, check out my book, The Incrementalist. You can find it at leanpub.com/incrementalist. The link is in the show notes. The book is now on sale for $4.99 up to January 31st. After that, the minimum price will go back up to the regular $9.99.
To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to productive living, you may reach out to me for coaching or speaking events.
If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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