HOW TO CHOOSE THE
RIGHT GOALS FOR YOU
This is a version of the article by Laura Duester that was originally published as 'Who needs goals? The problem with modern life’s goal-setting agenda' in Counselling Matters magazine (December 2022).
There’s an old fable about a fisherman and a businessman. The fisherman is sitting on the beach, relaxing, sunbathing and enjoying himself. A businessman questions why he isn’t out at sea, trying to catch more fish.
“I’ve already caught enough fish today to feed my whole family, as well as a few to sell to pay for everything else I need,” says the fisherman. The businessman advises that if the fisherman he works harder, he can make more money, buy bigger nets and catch even more fish.
“And then what?” the fisherman asks.
“Then you could buy a bigger boat, hire people to work with you, and catch even more fish. Eventually, you could have a lucrative business with hundreds of fishing boats, and sell fish all over the world.”
“And then what?” says the fisherman.
“You’ll be rich, so you can retire in comfort and live happily. Then you can spend as much time relaxing and sunbathing as you want!”
The fisherman replies: “But isn’t that what I’m doing now?”
I used to be very goal-focused. But now, after training in counselling and positive psychology, I’m much more choosy about what to aim for – distinguishing between the goals that are healthy and will contribute to my happiness, and those that will not. I also try to help clients do the same.
Goals can be great. They motivate us, helping us get through difficult times by focusing on the end-result, and can lead to amazing achievements. Success makes us feel good too, generating dopamine (the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter) in the brain, and boosting feelings of pleasure and wellbeing.
Goals are often fundamental to confidence and self-esteem. They help us feel worthwhile in society and give a sense of personal identity. Gaining competence and mastery also contribute to feelings of wellbeing and life satisfaction, as well as giving a sense of hope, direction and optimism for the future (Action for Happiness, 2022).
So there’s no doubt that goals can be positive – but they can be problematic too.
In today's society, personal achievement is often seen as the only valid purpose and pursuit in life. There’s a constant mantra for modern living, that we should always ‘achieve more’, ‘do more’ and ‘get more’. From early childhood, our value is often based on such achievements and successes, rather than our intrinsic, innate worth as human beings.
We’re lured into thinking that goal achievement will make us feel more valuable, more satisfied and happier, but it never does. There’s always something else to achieve; the goal posts just keep moving. Whether we get a promotion at work, complete an additional qualification, or buy a new car, there’s always something else – something bigger and better – to aim for.
The problem is that we’re not good at selecting the right goals – the ones that are truly meaningful and lead to greater wellbeing. We also assume that we’ll be happy once we’re successful, when research has shown that things actually work the opposite way round, with happiness leading to success (Achor, 2018).
Research suggests that healthy, happy and effective goal-setting means choosing goals that are personal and reflective of our wider values (Sheldon, 2002). When we select goals in this way, not only are we more likely to achieve our aims, but we also reap greater benefits – in terms of happiness, wellbeing and satisfaction – from our achievements.
One way to decide which goals are worthwhile is to imagine yourself when you’re old and reflecting back on your life. Which goals will feel like a valuable way to have spent your time and energy? How do your goals fit into the wider picture of your life and what’s important?
It’s essential not to base goals on what we think we ‘should’ do (eg. look good), or to avoid something that is uncomfortable (eg. feelings of worthlessness or guilt). We also need to enjoy our progress and competence along the way, taking small steps and celebrating the many mini-achievements that lead to overall goal success.
With greater thought and consideration, we can choose our goals more wisely, focusing on what is truly meaningful and makes us happy – not just doing things because we think we should, or because we’re afraid of the ‘what if’ if we don’t. By investing time and energy in activities that bring value to our lives, and enjoying the journey to achievement as much as the destination, we’re far more likely to reach happiness than blindly following today’s ‘do more’ cultural narrative.
Achor, S. (2018) The Happiness Advantage. Virgin Books
Sheldon, K. M. (2002) ‘The self-concordance model of healthy goal striving’. In Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (Eds) Handbook of Self-determination Research. University of Rochester Press