HAPPINESS AND GOALS
Now we turn to the role that long-term goals and aspirations play in personal happiness. There is a complex interrelationship between goals and happiness, so we will delve into a lot of detail in order to fully explain it. Before we do, however, let’s preview the gist of the discussion which follows this way: accomplishing our goals doesn’t contribute as much to our happiness as most people believe.
Ask the average person to pinpoint the causes of happiness (as my colleagues and I have often done), and many times you’ll hear that “happiness is achieving one’s goals.” Few would doubt this. In many quarters happiness and the achievement of goals are synonymous. Especially in modern, industrialized societies is this believe held to be gospel. The marriage of happiness to achievement goes back centuries in Western philosophical and psychological writing. It is at the very heart of the American Dream. And most of hear this basic view of happiness continuously as we grow up in society. It is so much a central part of our cultural beliefs, that hardly anyone questions it.
Indeed, it has only been with the advent of serious research into the nature of human happiness that this basic tenet has been questioned at all. Yet as the research has emerged, some serious questions regarding this age-old wisdom have come to the fore.
These questions have come from many sources. The main one, of course, are the findings we’ve already cited that happy people seem to have more modest goals set for themselves, and that ambition and achievement are not especially important to them. Yet other evidence from studies on the effects of success and biographical research of those who’ve made it to the top tend to confirm the same idea.
Essentially, the data stacks up this way. Although success and the achievement of goals contributes to happiness, it’s overall contribution is somewhat minor. Furthermore, the impact (or “punch”) which comes from achieving a particular goal isn’t as strong as we’ve been led to believe.
Apparently, our culture has over-dramatized and overrated the effect of goal-achievement on personal happiness. Thus, individuals who have based their lives on this highly-emphasized cultural value, often end up no happier for their efforts.
What has gone wrong here?
Let me try and explain by presenting a more philosophical analysis of the problems inherent in the “goal seeking approach” to attaining happiness.
The research would suggest that there are five fundamental problems with staking one’s happiness on the achievement of long-term goals.
- a) goals don’t have much of a happiness “punch”
- b) the effort to payoff ratio is negative
- c) if you arrive, you don’t know how to enjoy it
- d) it’s hard to know when you’ve “arrived”
- e) you may have sacrificed too much to get there
- f) you might not arrive at all