Have you ever felt that something was missing in your life and if you only reached this one goal, you would finally feel fulfilled and happy? If only we got that promotion, reached our ideal weight, found our ideal partner, moved into our dream home, or won that award, we would finally find the happiness we have been seeking.
Unfortunately, reaching these goals oftentimes does not bring lasting happiness. A friend of mine recently got promoted at work and at first she was ecstatic. It was something she had worked so hard for over a long period of time, sacrificing her personal life in the process. But she was surprised by how short-lived her excitement was. A few days later, she no longer felt happy about her accomplishment.
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, one of Harvard’s most popular lecturers and author of “Happier”, describes a similar phenomenon after he won the Israeli national squash championship. At first, he was happier than he had ever imagined himself being. After five years of hard work, training, and pain, he had finally won the title! But the next day, the feeling of bliss disappeared and his feeling of emptiness returned. He despaired, not knowing what to do next, since clearly the goal that he had thought would make him happy, did not. Did this mean that it was useless to pursue any goals?
Actually, the problem does not lie with having goals, but with the kind of goals we set and how we go about pursuing them. To be happy, we need to choose goals that are both pleasurable and meaningful, and we need to take time to enjoy the journey.
From an evolutionary perspective, we have learned that pleasure or pain follows immediately after behavior, so we have trouble connecting that the actions we take now lead to success in a few months. But when we focus on the pleasurable feeling we get as we make progress toward a goal, we now have a series of happy moments every step of the way.
So goals are really just means, not ends. Rather than expecting that the attainment of a goal will make us happy, we need to recognize that it is really the pleasure of the journey that increases our well being and happiness. The key is to enjoy the here and now while we are working toward a goal.
It also matters what type of goals we set. Research by Kennon Sheldon shows that we would be happier if we focused more on self-concordant goals. These are goals that we pursue because of deep personal conviction or strong interest. We choose them because of a desire to express part of ourselves, rather than a need to impress others. Often these are goals that involve growth, connection and contribution.
So we don’t have to stop setting goals, but we can choose them wisely. If we select goals that are important and meaningful to us (not somebody else) and remember to savor and enjoy every step of the way, we can not only reach them, but make ourselves happier in the process!
I am going to take a minute now to enjoy this moment and then go off and choose some meaningful goals for next week! :-)