How to Set Goals That Make You Happier
Happiness is an active pursuit. I don’t believe that you can wait for the universe to miraculously deliver happiness to your doorstep. You have to go find it.
Research has shown that there’s a strong link between goal setting and happiness. But can you plan for happiness?
An interesting study actually took a look at people who set goals for their well-being. And it revealed some advice for those of us striving to maximize our own happiness.
The Types of Goals You Should Be Making
The research from Stanford University was led by psychologist Jennifer Aakers and her team.
Over a series of different experiments, they studied individuals who set out to bring happiness to themselves by being more pro-social towards others.
Some people had broad goals like “make someone happy”. Others created more specific goals like “make someone smile.” While either of these goals are pretty noble, there was one that stood out as being more effective.
The results revealed that when trying to help others, it was concrete goals that gave an individual more personal satisfaction.
Why Do Specific Goals Make Us Happier?
Researchers believe that an issue with vague goals is that it encourages people to foster unrealistic outcomes. This can also raise our expectations.
When those big expectations from abstract goals aren’t met, our happiness goals can backfire. In contrast, framing our happiness goals in more concrete terms can make our expectations more realistic.
Think about it like this. If your goal was to “make someone happy”, you may picture yourself turning someone’s life around. So you tried to brighten their day by making them laugh or helping them out.
Did you make them happy? Sure. But you didn’t turn their life around. When there’s a gap between our expectations and reality, a certain level of disappointment sets in. One researcher said:
Discrepancies between aspirations and reality can be critical factors that, in extreme cases, may even lead the act of helping to eventually becoming a source of unhappiness.
In contrast, “making someone smile” is more concrete. It keeps expectations realistic. But another big plus is that we can clearly identify if we’ve reached our goal. The end result is that we’re happier people.
Do You Really Know What Makes You Happy?
There’s a paradox in happiness research that psychologists are trying to solve. People who try to be happy can actually end up being less happy.
How does that happen? The study points to a couple of possible answers.
Here’s the thing. On the surface, happiness seems like a simple concept. We understand what it is, see it every day in our lives, and know what it feels like.
But emotions usually aren’t simple. And part of the problem is that there’s more than one path to happiness. Jennifer elaborates on this point:
Although the desire for personal happiness may be clear, the path to achieving it is indefinite.
Here’s the other part of the equation. We think we know what will make us happy. In reality, though, we’re often wrong. Here’s Jennifer:
One reason for this hazy route to happiness is that although people often think they know what leads to happiness, their predictions about what will make them happy are often inaccurate.
Our intuition about what makes us happy can lead us astray. It may sound a little crazy. But when the researchers asked participants to make predictions about which types of goals would make them happier, they guessed wrong:
When considering both conditions (i.e., both goals) simultaneously, they believed that the abstract prosocial goal would lead to greater happiness than the concrete prosocial goal—the exact opposite of the results in the prior experiments.
Set The Right Type of Goals For Happiness
Other research has also linked general goals to depression. That team also found that general goals are tougher to achieve. And when those goals did fail, it was harder for depressed people to create new ones. The researchers cautioned, much like Jennifer and her team, that abstract goals may make people less happy.
We may not be the best at making happiness goals. It feels like making broad, open goals will make us happier. But instead, it just encourages us to have bigger, unrealistic expectations.
So when it comes to being an effective goal maker, be specific. Not general.