The Goal-Setting Recipe for Happiness: How to Craft Goals that Give You Joy

Find joy by setting goals like this…

Reaching my goals was suppose to be the defining moment of the year. But in July 2017, a whole five months before the end of the year, I had achieved all of my goals … and felt sadder than ever.

I thought maybe this was the reason people love to hate on goals. At the beginning of each year, the social media news feed gets flooded with people who say they don’t set goals or that setting goals doesn’t work.

I never understood these statements until July 2017, when my achievements didn’t make me happier. Maybe these people knew that goal-setting and goal-achievement didn’t add anything your bottom-line happiness.

But in my study of joy, I learned more about how goal-setting leads to greater happiness in life.

Dopamine, the chemical in your brain associated with reward and pleasure, relies on goal-setting and achievement. This chemical can be used for both good and bad. When used for unhealthy purposes, dopamine can keep you stuck in destructive patterns like drugs and addictions. But with appropriate goal-setting and achievement, dopamine can be used to move you forward in life.

Goal researchers, Locke and Latham, found that goal-setting is linked with greater self-confidence, motivation, and autonomy in life. As a result, life satisfaction increases.¹

The research proved it: goal setting does make you happier.

But in my study of joy, I discovered that goal setting can just as easily make you unhappy. Here’s what I discovered about how to craft goals that actually give you joy:

1. Conservative Goals vs. Ambitious Goals

“The satisfaction of success doesn’t come from achieving your goals, but from struggling well.” — Ray Dalio

A study done by the University of California, Riverside, found that setting ambitious goals as opposed to conservative goals makes you happier.

This requires a shift in thinking. We tend to believe that achieving a goal is what gives us satisfaction. But if we set conservative goals, we get conservative results, which are really what we expected to get. When we set ambitious goals, ones that stretch and challenge us, we get ambitious results.

We didn’t know if we could achieve the goal, so once we achieve it, the value we receive from our accomplishment is much higher.

But what if you didn’t reach your ambitious goal? Does it still make you happier as opposed to achieving a conservative goal?

Yes, because in the challenge of reaching for the ambitious goal, you arrive at a place higher than your expectation. You’re better because you aimed high.

If you feel your goals aren’t giving you the joy you want, challenge the goals you’ve been setting. Did you expect to easily reach those goals? If so, they may be too conservative for you. Aim higher and your joy will increase.

2. Outcome Goals vs. Process Goals

Sometimes, we anchor our happiness to the expected outcome of a goal. For instance, we say, “we won’t be happy unless we lose 20 pounds” or “we won’t be happy unless we pay off that debt.”

But an experiment done by Barry Zimmerman and Anastasia Kitsantas found that setting outcome goals might not be the best approach for our happiness.

In the experiment, they compared the results of two groups of adolescent girls instructed to improve their dart-throwing score. One group was instructed to only improve their score (the outcome goal) while the other group was instructed to focus on the process that would improve their score (the process goal).

The girls who were in the process goal group had higher dart-throwing scores and self-efficacy perceptions than did the girls who set outcome goals.

Process goals help drive achievement because they focus us on the activities that will lead to the desired result. Meanwhile, outcome goals can keep us stuck on only achieving the desired result. If we don’t achieve the result, our happiness takes a dip.

Instead of setting all outcome goals, think about the habits you would need to build to achieve that outcome. Not only would you make your desired outcome more likely, but you’ll also detach your happiness from the outcome.

3. Extrinsic Goals vs. Intrinsic Goals

My time in counseling revealed a surprising truth behind my goal setting: all of my goals were extrinsic goals.

Extrinsic goals are best thought of as “worldly goals,” as they relate to the attainment of money, prestige, recognition, etc. The opposite of extrinsic goals are intrinsic goals, defined as goals that grow your relationship with others and yourself. While extrinsic goals focus on material gain, intrinsic goals focus on your overall wellbeing.

A study done by the University of Rochester theorized that students who set intrinsic goals post-college would be happier in the long run than those who set extrinsic goals. Their theory was correct. Those who set intrinsic goals experienced greater happiness while those who set extrinsic goals reported no greater levels of wellbeing.

The results of this study is explained by the Self-Determination Theory, which states we have three psychological needs:

  • The need for autonomy: the feeling of being in control and self-directed.
  • The need for competence: the feeling of being effective and useful with your skills.
  • The need for relatedness: the feeling of being close with others.

Intrinsic goals make us happier because they meet these three psychological needs.

Surprisingly, all of my goals in 2017 were extrinsic goals. They were about meeting a certain revenue amount, attaining a certain status, and buying certain items. While they made me happy momentarily, they did not contribute to my overall wellbeing like I thought they would.

If we want to craft goals that keep us happy, we need to consider setting goals in more dimensions of life that the ones that just grow us professionally. We need goals that draw us closer to our spouses and friends. We need goals that make us healthier. And we need goals that grow our skillset. These are the goals that’ll make us happier in the long run.

Goals Can Make You Happy

After realizing my goals were not conditioned to give me joy, I changed course for 2018. I set more ambitious, process, and intrinsic goals. Here were some of those goals:

  • Pay off one loan by December 31st (ambitious).
  • Go to the gym three times per week starting April 2nd (process).
  • Take one unplugged vacation with Carly by June 30th (intrinsic).

I achieved all of my goals in 2018, and as a result, rediscovered a piece of joy I had not experienced in a while. I now know that goals are imperative for joy.

So I encourage you: give goals a try with these three considerations in mind. Maybe then you’ll experience the joy goals were meant to give you.

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[1]: Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268.