Are you happy with your life? That’s not as simple a question as it seems. After all, you may be content with some parts of your life and unhappy about others. Perhaps your work life fulfills you but you hunger to be in a relationship. Or maybe you’re fine with your partner but are dissatisfied with where your career is—or is not—going.
Happiness is different for each person, but researchers are discovering that no matter who you are, one factor virtually guarantees its boost: working toward a goal.
“Happiness is a sense of wellbeing we experience when we are engaged in meaningful and manageable projects in our lives,” says Carleton University associate professor of psychology Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D, and author of “The Procrastinator’s Digest.” “One of the key attributes of humans is that we are goal-oriented beings.”
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., University of California–Riverside professor of psychology and author of “The How of Happiness,” would agree. “People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers, or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations,” she writes. “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”
Why should doing what appears to be work make us happy? According to Lyubomirsky, pursuing a goal provides our lives with six benefits: 1) greater feelings of purpose and control; 2) increased self-esteem and confidence; 3) greater structure and meaning; 4) sharper planning and prioritizing skills; 5) increased ability to cope with problems; and 6) opportunities to engage with others.
But committing to a goal won’t automatically guarantee that you’ll feel better about your life. Sure, you’ll be busier, but not necessarily happier. That’s because some goals are unreasonable, inappropriate, impractical or unachievable. Explains Lyubomirsky, “The type of goal … that you pursue determines whether the pursuit will make you happy.”
Choosing the Right Goal
So what kind of goal will help you lead a happier life? According to Lyubomirsky, a worthwhile goal is, first and foremost, personally meaningful and rewarding. It should be one you freely choose rather than one that is imposed on you. For example, you’re less likely to find lasting happiness being a doctor to please your parents than being an architect to please yourself. As Pychyl puts it, it should not be an internalization of what others (friends, family, sitcoms) say you “ought to do.”
Your goal should move you toward doing something (such as learning a new language or volunteering) rather than acquiring something that improves your circumstances (such as buying a high-definition TV or moving into a bigger house). Lyubomirsky explains that people soon get used to improvements in their circumstances and no longer get the same degree of pleasure from them, whereas “activity” goals “produce a steady inflow of positive feelings and experiences.”
Lyubomirsky advises to aim for achieving a desired outcome (such as being happier at work) rather than avoiding an undesired one (such as getting fired). And don’t forget to factor in some flexibility. Being able to adjust a goal around future changes in your lifestyle or preferences can help you get through difficult financial or social times without having to abandon it. Be careful that your goals don’t conflict with one another. For example, if moving to Europe someday is important to you, you might decide not to buy a condo in your neighborhood.
Once you’ve set your goal, it can take effort to maintain the discipline and enthusiasm you need to work toward it. Lyubomirsky and Pychyl offer these suggestions:
Just get started. “A little progress on our goals fuels our wellbeing and motivation,” says Pychyl. “It primes the pump so to speak, and often we’re well on our way. As the old saying goes, a task begun is a task half done!”
Break up the goal into manageable sub-goals. Doing this will allow you to achieve some immediate results, boost your confidence, and help you stay on track. Be specific about your intermediate intentions, but keep the greater goal in the back of your mind.
Enlist the help of others. Tell trusted family members and friends about your goal and ask for their ongoing support. Having a way to be accountable to others can help you stick to your plans.
Check in with yourself from time to time. Have your circumstances or your preferences changed? If so, you may need to modify your goal or abandon it when it no longer serves you. According to Lyubomirsky, “…if an obstacle or constraint or opportunity suddenly arises, you may need to change or adapt your aspirations.” “But be careful,” warns Pychyl, “as we can abandon goals just because the going gets tough. Self-awareness if crucial here, and self-deception is the hallmark of the procrastinator.”
Celebrate your progress and cut yourself some slack. Any worthwhile goal will take time and effort to achieve. Be easy on yourself when you experience delays and setbacks and reward yourself when you achieve a sub-goal. Most of all, avoid trading your long-term goal for fleeting instant gratification.
“Just remember that happiness will come from pursuing goals, and not necessarily from achieving them,” Lyubomirsky explains. Pychyl agrees. “Enjoy the journey, as you'll find that the destination is not nearly as rewarding as the trip,” he says. “Deep engagement in our goals is the stuff of life.”
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