How to Make Goal-Setting Work For You

Is setting goals good for us? Here's why achievement and happiness often don't have anything to do with each other.
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
February 01, 2012

We are a society obsessed with goals. Nearly everyone sets them. In fact, we just finished the most popular goal-setting day of the year: New Year’s Eve. This is when we establish our annual objectives, called resolutions.

Even though goal-setting is in vogue, is it good for us? Maybe, but not necessarily.

After studying goals for nearly 10 years, I have seen that for many, this ritual can lead to both failure and disappointment. Why? Goal-gurus often use words like “achievement,” “success” and “potential.” They position these concepts in a way that sounds appealing. “Get a better job.” “Make more money.” “Find the perfect partner.” Although our culture has placed a high value on success, money, status and fame, none of these are what we really want. I believe the ultimate goal for human beings is “happiness.”

So, what is it that makes people happy?

A few years ago, I commissioned a statistically valid study that uncovered some startling figures:

  • 58 percent of people admit to willingly sacrificing their happiness today in the belief that when they achieve their goals they will be happier. This means that over half of all goal-setters believe that happiness only exists in the future when they achieve their goals.
  • Sadly, according to the same study, 92 percent of people fail to achieve their annual goal—their New Year's resolution. And it appears that this failure rate applies to all goal-setting.

But what about the 8 percent who achieved their goals? Clearly they must be happy with the results. But surprisingly, 41 percent of those who achieved their goals found that the accomplishment did little to improve their happiness. In fact, they were left disillusioned, dissatisfied and worse afterwards. Why? Many realized they inadvertently set the "wrong" goal. What's the response? Set yet another goal, and allow the vicious cycle to continue.

If you do the math, this means that only about 5 percent of goal-setters both achieve their goals and are happy as a result. And many of those "successful" 5 percent become acclimated to the fruits of their labor and the happiness wears off. The more money you make, the more money you want. The bigger your house, the more space you desire. The more successes you obtain, the more success you want.

This acclimation perspective is supported by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, in an interview in the January/February 2012 Harvard Business Review. He says:

“A recent study showed that very few experiences affect us for more than three months. When good things happen, we celebrate for a while and then sober up. When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it.”

He contends that happiness is not linked to achievement. In fact, he provides striking examples of people who had experienced “horrible” circumstances yet were ultimately happier in the long run. Apparently, we are good at finding the “silver lining.” On a lighter note, he quotes Pete Best, the drummer in the Beatles who was replaced by Ringo Starr before the band became big. He is now a session drummer and said, “I am happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

Achievement does not necessarily drive happiness—nor does having “more” or “less.” To be clear, I am not advocating that people sit idly while eating bonbons and watching Jerry Springer. A life like this is neither juicy nor exciting and will most likely lead to hedonistic tendencies and a feeling of being lost. You still need to have something pulling you forward; something that gets you energized.

So here is what I am suggesting.

  • Instead of being "attached" to your future outcomes, consider reattaching yourself to something of a “higher value” in the present moment, such as serving others. If you want to accomplish more in the future, serve others more today.
  • Instead of postponing your happiness until you have achieved some future goal, want what you have today. Take stock in what you have, regardless of how big or small, so that you can appreciate your current state. As a side benefit, studies prove that happier people make more money. Their positive demeanor makes them more attractive to others opening up additional avenues for wealth and success.
  • Instead of having overly specific targets for the future, meander with purpose. SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) limit your peripheral vision and can cause you to miss bigger opportunities.
  • Instead of pushing your way into the future, allow the future to "pull" you forward. To do this, consider creating “aspirations” versus goals. An aspiration is a broad compass direction that opens up many different paths and options to choose from. Not only are they less restrictive, but taking steps in the direction of your aspiration, brings you joy today. The word "goal" comes from the Old English and means obstacle, barrier or hindrance. With this as the definition, it is no surprise that goals are perceived as hard work. Conversely, "aspiration" comes from the same Latin word for inspire. When you are inspired, work is not work.

For many, goals are thought of as something to achieve in the future in order to give them happiness someday. However, a more powerful approach is to recognize that you can be happy today while using the future to create excitement now. That is, the future is a present-moment context, not a destination. Happiness in the future only occurs when you find happiness today.

The real fallacy of goal-setting is that we don't know what goals to even set. Regardless of your age, you have had such a small set of experiences compared to all of the possible ones out there. How could you possibly know what you want?

My study shows that 53 percent of individuals feel that they are living their lives in a way that satisfies others more than themselves. Their goals are a result of parental expectations, family needs or societal norms. As Daniel Gilbert says, “People are not very good at predicting what will make them happy.”

Try these tips in 2012. Meander with purpose. Be inspired. Be present moment focused. And focus on appreciation. You may feel lighter, happier and more creative. As a result, you might even be more successful than if you hyper-focused on your goals.