Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Goal-setting and happiness

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Goal-setting and happiness:
What sorts of goals lead to happiness?
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Many people pursue goals that they expect will make them happy, but happiness isn’t always the end result. There are people who will put everything they have into one aspect of their life, such as their careers (at the expense of their personal lives) only to wonder years later why they are successful and still unhappy (Lyubomirsky, 2005). It is all too common for people to be surrounded by beautiful homes, expensive cars, and designer clothes, have hundreds of Facebook friends and still have less personal satisfaction within their life than if they did not have all that extra “stuff” (Lyubomirsky, 2005). So then how is one to know which goals will provide personal happiness and which ones will not?

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Happiness is a mental state of well-being that is characterised by a range of positive emotions (Lyubomirsky, 2001). Positive psychology experts have endeavoured to find the answer to questions focusing on what “happiness” is, and how we might attain it (Lyubomirsky, 2001 & 1998).

Goal-setting involves deciding what you want to accomplish and devising a plan to achieve the result you strive for (Hollenbeck, 1987). Goal-setting encompasses a major component of personal development and is viewed as an effective tool for making progress towards goals by ensuring that a person has a clear awareness of what they must do to achieve their objective (Hurn, 2006). Goal-setting is intrinsically linked with a desire to improve one’s self and overall happiness (Hurn, 2006). The amount of time spent on achieving goals, means that you will want to be sure of why you are working towards specific goals (Hollenbeck, 1987). Your happiness has to be the driving factor, and the deal breaker behind which goals you work towards, and which ones you toss (Hollenbeck, 1987).

Think back to the goals you achieved in your past. Remember how you felt when you got your driver’s licence or on your wedding day or when you graduated from your different levels of schooling? At every point in your life when you feel content or happy, you can most probably find that you were either making progress toward a goal or had reached a goal (Hurn, 2006).

Now think back to when you were last unhappy. In each case you may have either (Hurn, 2006)

  1. had no goal,
  2. were trying to reach an undesirable goal,
  3. you were making no or little progress towards a goal or
  4. due to circumstances you were not able to accomplish a desired goal.

Goal Guidelines[edit | edit source]

  • Goals should be challenging but realistic and attainable: If you set goals that are too easy, you will reach them without much difficulty, which will not provide you with a real sense of accomplishment. It is best to set goals that can be realistically reached, but only with a sufficient amount of time and effort put in (Latham, 2005).
  • Goals should be specific and concrete: The goal should target an area to be worked on, and you should be able to measure the improvement or changes that have been aimed for, and have a time frame in which to achieve the goal (Latham, 2005).
  • Avoid focusing on goal attainment: It is not possible to judge whether every goal made will ultimately be attainable. It is more than likely that you will not reach every goal that you set for yourself. Therefore it is more advisable to focus on the journey you have taken (degree of attainment) rather than whether or not you fully reached your goal (absolute attainment)(Latham, 2005).
  • Continuous goal setting: Goal setting is a process that never ends (Locke, 1990). Once one goal is achieved, another goal with a different direction should be created to take its place (Latham, 2005). As you evolve as a person, your goals will change. You should review your goals on a regular basis and adjust them as needed (Locke, 1990).
  • Feedback: You should get regular feedback on how you are doing in pursuing your goals from those around you (Latham, 2005). Having consistent feedback contributes to the effectiveness of goal setting.

What Sorts of Goals Lead to Happiness?[edit | edit source]

Having vs. Achieving Goals:[edit | edit source]

Having the right type of goal helps you to find the happiness that you seek (Hollenbeck, 1987). The purpose of having goals is to provide you with direction, not necessarily to provide you with achievement and success (Lyubomirsky, 2005). The types of goals you go after should enhance your experience of the present, while it is advisable to avoid goals where you focus on the destination as being the key to your happiness(Hollenbeck, 1987).

Intrinsic and Authentic Goals:[edit | edit source]

Intrinsic goals are goals that are personally meaningful and satisfying (Ryan, 2000). Intrinsic goals are not the result of external conditioning (Ryan, 2000). They are instead goals that align with a person’s core values (Ryan, 2000).

In four simple words: Do what you love! (Lyubomirsky, 2001)

If your goals follow the conventional lifestyle of the average Australian adult and you go to university, get a job, get married, have children, then retire, it is important you pursue these goals because they are meaningful to you and you are not just following them because of social or familial conditioning (Lyubomirsky, 2001). Divert your energy to those goals which are meaningful and purposeful in your life (Ryan, 2000). If you enjoy helping others pursue volunteer work. If you enjoy dancing, take lessons. If you enjoy fitness, take up a sport you enjoy playing. Pursuing goals that mean something to you personally will bring happiness into your life (Lyubomirsky, 2001).

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after”- Henry David Thoreau (Erez, 1984)

Money, beauty, possession of items, and popularity for instance are for the most part extrinsic goals (Ryan, 2000). That is, they are pursued as a means to an end and not for their own sake and therefore true happiness is unlikely to be found in the pursuit of them (Ryan, 2000).

Harmonious Goals:[edit | edit source]

Not pursuing goals that conflict is important (Lyubomirsky, 1998). For example, attempting to maintain two goals of say starting your own business and spending a more significant amount of time with your family can seriously conflict with one another and cause an unsatisfying feeling during goal progression (Lyubomirsky, 1998). Pursuing goals that do not conflict creates a harmonious well-being and leads towards happiness (Lyubomirsky, 1998).

Flexible Goals:[edit | edit source]

People often stubbornly stick to their goals until they are completed whether they are gaining happiness from the progression or not (Hollenbeck, 1989). It is however apparent that change occurs and it is important to note that it is not a sign or weakness to change and is in fact a sign of strength and takes courage (Hollenbeck, 1989). Flexible goals lead to happiness as they stop us from being constricted (Hollenbeck, 1989). If we rigidly stick to goals we may be denying new evidence or knowledge that becomes available after we have set the original goal objective (Hollenbeck, 1989).

Future Goals:[edit | edit source]

Once a goal has been achieved it is important for you to create new goals to continue to have something fresh to strive for (Locke, 2006). Without a new goal a person becomes bored (Locke, 2006). Boredom ultimately leads to stress, misery or feelings of incompleteness (Locke, 2006).

This is a common predicament for married couples post-honeymoon. Between the period of pre-wedding to honeymoon, a couple has multiple goals to achieve together which creates a sense of happiness, however post-honeymoon, after the extravagant celebrations are over, the couple may find themselves in a rut of boredom unless they create further future goals to achieve together.

This also applies to retirees. For some planning their retirement and the initial stages after leaving the workforce can be an absolute thrill. But the joy of freedom can quickly turn to boredom is a person does not work on making new goals for themselves.

Long-Term Commitment:[edit | edit source]

Two thousand years ago Seneca cautioned “though you may cross vast spaces of sea in an attempt to escape the stressors of your life, you will fail to find peace or happiness there because your faults will follow you wherever you travel.” (Hollenbeck, 1987)

Asking what we want to be rather than what we want can have a lasting impact on goal happiness (Hollenbeck, 1987). It is however a long term commitment, as being what we want involves the daily challenge of facing the gap between where we are now and where we want to be (Bandura, 1997 & Hollenbeck, 1987). For instance a person may want to be more generous towards the less fortunate because they feel as if it will bring them happiness to enrich the lives of other people. But the person first has to examine the gap between their current ungenerosity, aka where they are now to where they want to be. The person cannot pretend the gap does not exist if they want to better themselves (Hollenbeck, 1987).

Be True to Yourself:[edit | edit source]

When making goals it would be wise to make sure that what you are aiming for goals that coincide with who you really are (Lyubomirsky, 2001). There should be some compatibility; otherwise if the goal and your personality don’t align it is unlikely that you be willing to put in the work in the long run to achieve it (Lyubomirsky, 2001). This is why some of us, no matter how hard we try and however much we want to, just end up going around in circles (Lyubomirsky, 2001). If you enjoy doing something and get a lot of pleasure from it, it is very unlikely to actually be hard work (Lyubomirsky, 2001). Hobbies are one example of putting in effort to reach a goal which people just happen to enjoy at the same time.

The reason a person might prefer playing tennis over rugby is that tennis aligns better with their personality. Therefore if a choice had to be made, the goal of tennis is more likely to be achieved and enjoyed because motivation is less of an issue (Lyubomirsky, 2001).

We can still achieve goals that do not align with our personality, but the less it aligns the more of an external influence might be needed and finding happiness through progression of these goals will be more of a challenge (Lyubomirsky, 2001).

Enjoy the Journey:[edit | edit source]

One of the keys to happiness is enjoying the journey (Lyubomirsky, 2001). This can sometimes be easier said than done though. Achieving is beneficial, but it is a mistake to miss out on life as we achieve (Lyubomirsky, 2001). It is immensely important to enjoy the journey and to enjoy life as we accomplish goals. The extent to which you are making progress on our goals, you are happier emotionally and more satisfied with your life (Lyubomirsky, 2001).

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The Darker Side of Goal-Setting[edit | edit source]

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Temporary Happiness[edit | edit source]

Instant gratification predominates in today’s society (Lyubomirsky, 1998). Situations arise where specific goals may lead to temporary happiness (Lyubomirsky, 1998). Often this brief happiness is associated with the lesser good which promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting in comparison to the greater good which may require more sacrifice and effort (Lyubomirsky, 1998). For example, while it may be more enjoyable to spend the night watching TV or out at a bar, but you know you will be better off is you spend the time working on an assignment.

The use of drugs has become a relatively common method to gain the goal of temporary happiness (Lyubomirsky, 1998). There are some who use drugs as a method to escape from their troubles. For a small price, a person can immediately take their mind off any issues and experience euphoria by taking a pill (Lyubomirsky, 1998). This short-term pleasure can ultimately lead to long term pain when the effects of the drug wear off and you feel miserable again and therefore feel the need to take the drug again, which leads to a spiral of need and relief (Lyubomirsky, 1998.

It is however difficult to achieve true happiness through goal-setting simply by enjoying the pleasures of the moment (Lyubomirsky, 1998 & Bandura, 1997).

Happiness Exercise: How to effectively use goals to enhance happiness[edit | edit source]

The following exercise is a guide that can help you explore the current state of your life in terms of goals, and help you assess your goals to find the ones that will give you direction to work toward that will likely bring happiness (Locke, 1990).

  1. List goals you have not reached yet (Locke, 1990):
    Make a list of the different types of goals you have currently not reached in your life. They can be small goals, extravagant goals, failed goals and current goals.
  2. Circle those goals that interest you the most (Locke, 1990):
    Circle all the goals that you have not yet reached but you have an interest in or feel motivated to complete. Cross out the goals that you cannot find any benefits to (Locke, 1990). Also eliminate the goals that are of no interest to you and you are not excited about achieving. However it is important to keep goals that are vital, however uninteresting they may be (Locke, 1990). For example your goal may be to “pay off all debts”. That goal may not thrill you, but examine the benefits: If you save ‘X’ amount of money in one year and pay off a credit card that leads to financial freedom which leads to less anxiety and stress.
  3. Add new desirable goals (Locke, 1990):
    Think about what your greatest desires might be. If you could accomplish anything, what would your goals be? What would you have? What would you do? Add any new goals to your list.

As you set goals for yourself, remember all of the areas of your life that are important to you (Hollenbeck, 1987). Map out a detailed description of how you would like your whole life to look. You can use a pie chart to represent your life, and put the goals for different areas of your life into the different ‘pieces’, making the more desirable goals into larger pieces of pie to provide you with a visual cue (Hollenbeck, 1987).

  1. Line up your goals in a logical sequence (Locke, 1990):
    The better your goals align with each other, the more likely you will reach them. For example “Finish my degree, so I can have a more stable income which can pay of my debt” or “Help my partner more around the house so we have more time to spend quality time together which can improve our relationship”. Make a list your goals from most important (want to accomplish/strive for first) to the lesser important goals or goals in which you want to strive for at a different point in your life.
  2. To complete the procedure and become happier, you now need to start making progress toward your goals (Locke, 1990):
    Whether it be big steps, baby steps, any progress is positive progress! (Locke, 1990).

By setting sharp and clearly defined goals, we can measure and take pride in our achievements; we can see progress in small manageable steps and this can build confidence and momentum and lead to happiness being achieved (Hollenbeck, 1987). The more progress you make towards your most desired goals, the happier and fulfilled you will be (Locke, 1990 & Hollenbeck, 1987). Attempt to review your goals on a regular basis to keep your attention and efforts aligned with your goals (Locke, 1990). Ask yourself “What can I do today or this week or this month to make progress towards my goals?”

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Setting goals helps us achieve, gain a sense of accomplishment and feel happiness but it is also true that goals can’t guarantee that the things in which we strive for are necessarily the right things for our happiness or well-being (Hollenbeck, 1987). When they work for us, goals honour our own values and our values are more about what we want to be than what we want to have (Hurn, 2006). So much of what we think will make us happy, simply doesn’t (Hurn, 2006). Even if everything may not be going exactly the way we initially planned, if we love what we have while at the same time working toward making changes and creating new goals, we will lead a happy life (Davern, 2007).

Overall it is important to simple seek balance in all things (Diener, 2009). Balance planning with doing; having with being, wanting with experiencing, dreaming with implementing, achieving goals with experiencing the present (Diener, 2009).

Have a little fun… It’s good for you!


See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

  • [1] - A YouTube video providing advice on how to use S.M.A.R.T. goals to enhance happiness.
  • [2] - This video provides insight from the author of 'Creating Your Best Life' into why long-term and short-term goals are the key to happiness

References[edit | edit source]

Bandura, A. (1997). Social Learning Theory: Self-efficacy-the exercise of control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Davern, M., Cummins, R., & Stokes, M. (2007). Subjective Wellbeing as an affective-cognitive construct. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 429-449. doi:10.1007/s10902-007-9066-1.

Diener, E., & Ryan, K. (2009). Subjective well-being: a general overview. South African Journal of Psychology, 39, 391-406. Retrieved from:

Erez, M. & Zidon, I. (1984). Effects of goal acceptance on the relationship of goal setting and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 69-78. Retrieved from:

Hollenbeck, J.R. & Klien, H. J. (1987). Goal commitment and the goal setting process, problems, prospects, and proposals for future research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(2), 212-220. Retrieved from:

Hollenbeck, J., Williams, C. & Klien, H. (1989). An empirical examination of the antecedents of commitment to difficult goals. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 184-190.

Hurn, J., Kneebone, I. & Cropley, M. (2006). Goal setting as an outcome measure: a systematic review. Clinical Rehabilitation, 20, 756-772.

Latham, G.P. (2005). Work Motivation Theory and research at the dawn of the twenty first century. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 485-516. Retrieved from:

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Association for Psychlogical Science, 15(5), 265-270. Retrieved from:

Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others? American Psychologist, 56, 239. Retrieved from:

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803. Retrieved from:

Lyubomirsky, S., & Tucker, K. (1998). Implications of individual differences in subjective happiness for perceiving, interpreting, and thinking about life events. Motivation & Emotion, 22, 155-186. Retrieved from:

North, R., Holahan, C., Moos, R., & Cronkite, R. (2008). Family support, family income, and happiness: A 10-year perspective. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 475-483.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 51(1), 68-78.

Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Oxford, England: Macmillan.

Veenhoven, R. (2008). Healthy happiness: effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 449-469. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9042-1