On goals and happiness
27 September 2013
From a young age onwards, an array of goals is laid in front of us: learning to ride a bicycle, doing well in a math exam, getting through elementary school, having friends, making it into secondary school, being good at sports or playing an instrument, graduating, getting a job, having a good CV, being promoted. Some of these goals we set for ourselves, some are set by an outside authority, and reaching many of them is a cause for celebration.
Perhaps it is the celebration and the perceived increase in one’s social value and achievement that we so easily associate the period after reaching a goal with happiness and joy, whereas the time before reaching a goal means striving and even unhappiness. The simple mathematic formula for happiness would then be to reach as many goals as possible. That’d make you happier, right?
Not so fast. Thinking back into my own life, this idea doesn’t seem to hold water. Sure, the celebrations have always been nice, but the times after reaching a goal haven’t necessarily always meant rainbows and unicorns;
What’s next? I have often been asking myself.
Perhaps counterintuitively, striving for goals to become happier doesn’t seem to go a very long way. Because of the way we are wired, the opposite is in fact a better strategy.
Most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier. ... And the problem is it's scientifically broken and backwards. ... Every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got into a good school and after you get into a better school, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we're going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there.
If reaching your goals becomes a condition of being happy, you’re in for one unhappy life: reach one goal and your brain has already found another one to strive for. “I’m sure I’ll be happy when I just reach this one more goal.” In effect you’re pushing happiness far into the horizon, always to be found on top of the next mountain. When you get to the top of that mountain, it has already jumped onto the next one.
All this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set goals at all: research has shown that having meaningful goals can lead to a more fulfilling life and goal orientation has probably had many evolutionary benefits. What it does mean is that reaching these goals shouldn’t become a precondition for happiness, because that way long-term happiness becomes unattainable. Being happy regardless of where you are in your long-term plan and doing things for the innate enjoyment that they provide is a more sustainable road towards being happy.