Last week I talked about reigning in expectations. The truth is that we can’t all be extremely rich, on the front cover of cool magazines, win prestigious business awards, go out with a movie star or be one. If there are no individuals who are happy to grow food, drive a truck, stock shelves in supermarkets, clean schools, teach children, fix cars or unblock a toilet, our whole societal and economic system stops working.
At the same time, we also need to have high aims in life, and having goals greatly contributes to our psychological wellbeing. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, working toward meaningful life goals “is one of the most important strategies for becoming lastingly happier”.1
Do you have a goal in life? Are you working towards it? Maybe you once did but were thwarted, side-tracked, discouraged, or unsuccessful? Lyubomirsky points out that there are two potential problems we might face when approaching goal pursuit as a happiness intervention. One is that we might be chasing the wrong goals, and the other is that we may be lacking the necessary passion or motivation to go after them.2 For example, Brett studied hard to become a lawyer to please his ambitious parents. When it came to practicing law, however, his heart was not in it. Another example is Lucy, who wanted to become a writer, but never got her head around sitting alone in a room for hours on end.
Lyubomirsky stresses that striving for a goal will only increase our happiness if our goal is intrinsic and authentic. Intrinsic means belonging to a thing by its very nature. An intrinsic goal is personally meaningful and inherently satisfying to us, and allows us to grow as individuals and contribute to society. Authentic stands for not false or copied; genuine; real. An authentic goal we choose for ourselves, because it reflects our interests, core values, and suits our personality. For example, Lyubomirsky writes, if we are extroverted, we will want to interact with others; if we are nurturing individuals, we might choose a goal in which we look after others; or if we are achievers, we might try to compete etc. Thus, in order to set ourselves an intrinsic, authentic goal we need to know ourselves well. We need to consider who we are, what our values and beliefs are, what we desire, prefer, and importantly, who we want to be.4
Goal pursuit may seem a far-fetched intervention for anyone feeling depressed. When the black dog hangs around, one frequently cannot see anything positive in the moment, the past or the future. It may seem an inopportune time to consider one’s goals when in reality one just wants to give up and withdraw from life and all its hassles and disappointments. But I tell you why it is a good time to think about your dreams: over time a goal will gently and positively weave you back into life.
Whenever we are on the path toward reaching a personally meaningful goal, we benefit in various ways. According to Lyubomirsky, goals give us direction, a sense of purpose and a feeling of having control in our lives. They bolster our self-esteem and confidence, making us feel capable of achieving a desired result. Having goals also adds meaning and structure to our lives, challenging us to master new skills, meet deadlines and responsibilities. Additionally, they often require an expansion of our social network, allowing us to engage with and connect with other people. Goals help us to prioritise, plan, develop a schedule, and necessitate that we divide it up into sub-goals. All of these are genuinely life improving skills, Lyubomirsky points out. Lastly, when we are facing a crisis, an ongoing commitment to goals can help us to cope better, even if we have to postpone or change the goals due to our problems.5 Please note: Every single benefit mentioned by Lyubomirsky is in itself strongly linked to happiness. To be happy, we need to feel that we have some control over our lives, we need self-esteem, meaning, established priorities and, as pointed out previously, we need to share life with other people.
My friend Carol had never learnt to swim properly and made it her goal to do so in her fifties. She took lessons at the public pool until she could do a very reasonable over-arm. After many years of being sick and out of the workforce and unable to get a job, Rosalie started to volunteer in her area of qualification. Through this she received professional training, which led her to pursue other courses. She then decided to complete a Postgraduate Diploma, which became a Masters. None of it was easy and her goal of landing a professional job took years to achieve. She got the first one she applied for, however, and the journey transformed her. James, straight out of High School, decided to become a photographer. He had no financial support and had to work as a salesman alongside building his business, often working seven days a week. His goal was to become one of the best in his field of photography, and now, 7 years later, he is at the top of his game.
We have to truly want our goals, and we need to muster the confidence that we can achieve them over and over again. Pursuing a goal requires persistence and dedication. But trust happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky when she states, “find a happy person and you will find a project.”6
If you are not sure about what your goals are, allow me to introduce you to a powerful happiness-enhancing exercise pioneered by Psychology Professor Laura King. Previous research by James W. Pennebaker had shown that writing could be therapeutic as it enabled disclosure and construction of a sensible story, and fostered insight and a sense of personal control over challenging emotional experiences. These benefits had led to enhanced physical health among study participants. King then sought to establish whether writing about life goals, i.e. a topic not tied to negative experiences, would enhance psychological and physical wellbeing. She divided study participants into groups and asked them to write for 20 minutes on four consecutive days. One group was instructed to write about past trauma, another about a neutral topic, another to describe their best possible future self, and the last to write for two days about trauma and two days about their best possible future self. King found that those who had written exclusively about their best possible future self had higher psychological wellbeing than the other participants; they became sick less often, felt less emotional and more positive, optimistic, and happy. They also were more likely to attribute responsibility to themselves.7
For the best possible future self exercise, imagine yourself in ten years time after everything in your life has gone as well as it could. Where are you in this future, how and where do you live, what do you do professionally, in your free time, and with whom? Are you married, do you have children, what are your friends like and what hobbies or activities do you enjoy? Write it all down, and really take your time.
I did this exercise at a very low point in my life, when I struggled to find the will to go on, and the vision that emerged in my heart is still strongly with me. I cannot recommend this exercise too highly.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015