Can Goals Make You Happier?
What makes you happy?
That answer is different for everyone. It depends on our personalities, interests, and even the culture and environment we grew up in.
Yet, happiness researchers have discovered certain behaviors and habits that happy people have in common.
The pursuit of goals is one such happiness habit.
Goals Make Us Happier
Are setting goals really worth your time?
We’ve all asked this at one point or another. When it comes to being happier, it seems that it is.
A research team did a study in 2007 where people participated in 3 short 1-hour goal setting and planning sessions. Participants completed them in either a group setting or by themselves online.
The researchers then then compared those people against groups that didn’t complete the activity. They write:
The results provide preliminary support for the view that
(a) goal setting and planning skills have a causal link to subjective well-being and
(b) that such skills can be learned to enhance well-being.
In case you missed it, the researchers said there is a causal link between goal pursuit and happiness. Meaning that goals can directly contribute to happiness.
Want more evidence? Psychologist David Niven talks about a 1998 study in 100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life:
People who could identify a goal they were pursuing were 19 percent more likely to feel satisfied with their lives and 26 percent more likely to feel positive about themselves.
Writing Down Goals Makes You Happier
We’re told that we should write down our goals.
It can increase your chances of success, but can also be a helpful reminder when you put it somewhere noticeable.
But here’s something else. Writing out your goals also gives you a shot of happiness, at least in the short term.
There’s a psychological practice known as “Best Possible Self”. It requires you to think about a future where all your life goals have been accomplished. Next, you write down in as much detail as possible what you imagined.
This exercise was originally used in a study to compare the health benefits of writing about trauma vs. something positive. What the researchers discovered was that writing about your future self and goals could also make you happy:
Writing about life goals was significantly less upsetting than writing about trauma and was associated with a significant increase in subjective well-being.
Since then, a line of research has sprung up around “Best Possible Self” and has shown that it has a number of benefits for a wide variety of people. Not only can it increase your mood and short term happiness, but also makes you more optimistic.
Goals and Long Term Happiness
Thinking about your best possible self in the future can boost your happiness. For even as long as a few months later.
But what about the long term?
A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies reviewed over 85 different studies, and found a strong link between goals and subjective well-being. Which includes both positive feelings and overall life satisfaction.
The researchers also noted that the effect was stronger when the studies defined successful goal pursuit as progress instead of goal achievement. Hinting that progressing towards our goals might bring us just as much satisfaction as actually reaching them.
And long term happiness doesn’t always mean going after big goals. Having a bunch of smaller sub-goals along the way could make you happier. Here’s psychologist David Niven from The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:
Life satisfaction is 22 percent more likely for those with a steady stream of minor accomplishments than those who express interest only in major accomplishments.
Successful Goal Pursuit Requires 2 Skills
Another group of researchers decided to study goal pursuit among university students. A time of big transitions in new surroundings among complete strangers. Without the help of their friends and family.
The researchers found that successful goal pursuit improved their quality of life. This included reducing effort on unattainable goals, as well as engaging in meaningful ones:
The findings confirmed that goal disengagement and goal reengagement can be associated with ratings of high subjective well-being.
They found both were independently related to subjective well-being, and included higher purpose in life, fewer intrusive thoughts, lower perceived stress, and higher self-mastery.
Why Do Goals Make Us Happier?
Not all goals are created equal. Some types make us happier than others.
But why do goals make you happier?
There area lot of psychological factors that play into it. Part of the reason why is because setting, maintaining, and achieving goals encompasses a lot of different behaviors.
But at its base, goals help us fulfill a deep psychological need to grow, connect, improve, and achieve self-actualization. It helps define our identities, feel in control, motivate and give us purpose.
In other words, goals are what we use to pursue happiness.