Is All Our Goal Setting Messing with Our Happiness?

grumpy boy on a beach towel at the beach

I live in a land of achievers. Our nation of immigrants has come scratching and clawing their way to a better life, risking everything to work hard so the next generation has more.

Or at least that’s the narrative. I grew up hearing stories of my immigrant great-grandfather, a Russian Jew who entered Ellis Island alone at nine years old to escape the Czar’s army. He somehow managed to survive living in NYC’s garment district and selling newspapers, relying at least once on the kindness of a stranger’s $5 tip to live through the winter.

As a young man, he moved to South Carolina, married a Gentile, had four kids, the youngest of whom was my paternal grandfather, and opened a successful clothing store. Like many second generation Jewish children, my grandfather, and in turn, my father, went into medicine.

I grew up in a Type A, achievement-oriented house. I was never overtly taught to set goals. It’s just embedded in both my DNA and my conditioning.

In this blog, I regularly share both my process for setting goals and my progress, updating you on how I’m doing with these arbitrary measures I’ve set for gauging my life’s work.  There are plenty of times in life where I haven’t set goals, namely when I was living in Chile as a 20-something and right after I had kids, when the biggest goal I could muster was to survive the day. Even then, I started working with a MLM company shortly after and set goals out the wazoo.

The times when I didn’t have goals feel, in hindsight, like wandering, anchorless times. At the end of my stay in Chile, I became incredibly disillusioned because I was so ready to move back to the US and get on with life.  Never mind that I was busy living it in Santiago.

While goal-setting has helped me put some parameters around a mind that’s particularly good at planning for the future (which is what Martin Seligman says distinguishes us from other primates), has it increased my happiness, as I like to think, or has it promulgated a restlessness, a longing for more, that has undercut my ability to appreciate the here-and-now?

When school starts in two weeks, my boys will go back to school and I’ll be officially not working (because playing cruise director with two kids and a puppy is decidedly NOT not working).

And I’ll be left with time to fill. My first inclination will be to put some parameters around this time, to give myself some goals so that I don’t waste even a half hour of my time.  But is that wise?

Is All Our Goal Setting Messing with Our Happiness?

The Art of a Mind Left to Wander

In an age where focus is one of the most valuable commodities we can possess, I’m sensing that goal-setting the next nine months away will be anathema to my long-term success as a human being.

The problem with having goals is that you don’t always know if what you’re doing in the short term makes sense in the long term. Essentially, I’m afraid that setting goals right now would be a terrible idea because I need some goal-less time.

It will also undermine my ability to appreciate the here-and-now. I realize that I’m in the extraordinarily privileged position of having free time to think. Granted, I’m not exactly doing nothing. I’ll be a stay-at-home mom, taxiing kids to activities, volunteering in their classrooms, helping with homework, evaluating the local charter schools, and doing housework and related logistics. I’ll also be blogging and freelance writing.

But my tendency is definitely leaning toward the “I should find something worthwhile to do” camp.

water splashpad fun
Sometimes, it’s important to just have fun.

Why Do We Set Goals?

Let’s explore this incessant desire for achievement and see why we have it. Does it truly bring happiness or is it the opposite?

First of all, what makes us happy? Seligman’s theory is that it is well-being, rather than happiness, that we’re truly after:

“Well-being is a construct; and well-being, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology. Well-being has five measurable elements (PERMA) that count toward it:

  • Positive emotion (Of which happiness and life satisfaction are all aspects)
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment

No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it. Some aspects of these five elements are measured subjectively by self-report, but other aspects are measured objectively.”

Originally, Seligman’s theory sought to pin down the elements of happiness, but he realized that wasn’t really what human beings were after. Why would we have kids, after all, when studies clearly show that couples with children have less happiness and life satisfaction in general?

But having kids does tick off some of the PERMA boxes. Kids give us positive emotion. Positive emotion comes from doing things that bring you pleasure, like giving someone a hug, eating an ice cream cone, or watching a sunset.

Engagement is another word for flow. It’s when you have worked hard to master a skill and then perform it almost without even consciously realizing it, such as having your fingers practically dance over the keys as you perform a piano piece, or have word pour out of you as you write a blog post (wish that happened every day).

Relationships, of course, are the stuff that fulfill our social needs. We are, after all, social beings, and we live to connect with each other. Having children brings new, close, nurturing relationships into our lives.

Meaning and purpose come from feeling like there’s a reason we were put on this earth. It’s why Rick Warren’s A Purpose Driven Life was such a huge bestseller. People are looking to be a part of something that’s bigger and more meaningful that the daily ins and outs of ordinary life. Raising a human being is a pretty big purpose.

Finally, accomplishment is the feeling we get when we’ve successfully mastered something new. This is where goal-setting fits in. Turns out, working towards learning a new skill and mastering that skill, just for the sake of doing it, seems to be hard-wired into our DNA. I had absolutely zero need to learn French, but several years ago, I dutifully used Duolingo and listened to French CDs I parled some minor Frances simply for the sake of mastering a new skill. And it was awesome! It filled me with a feeling of well-being.

So, if goal-setting has a valid place in life, when can goal-setting become disruptive to your well-being?

I posit that especially in our achievement-oriented culture, we can sometimes focus a bit too much on the “A” of PERMA: we can elevate achievement over relationships and positive emotion. I’ve certainly been guilty of this phenomenon. In fact, right now, as Mr. ThreeYear comes into my office to ask if I want to have breakfast, I’m more committed to the goal of finishing this blog post than I am to spending time with him.

Hmmm. How do we counteract this tendency toward over-achievement? The jury’s still out, but for now, I’m going to put any immediate goal-setting on hold and focus on enjoying the other four elements of well-being, PERM, and see what happens. I’ll keep you posted. Now, time for breakfast!

Author: Laurie

Hi. I'm Laurie, and my family and I have set out to double our net worth and move abroad in the next three years. Join us on our journey!

3 thoughts on “Is All Our Goal Setting Messing with Our Happiness?”

  1. Awesome post…. very introspective in nature. I never really knew your origin story, so yeah this was pretty cool to see your background and where you come from.

    Well being vs happiness, wow, i guess that’s just not something i had really though about up to this point. I thought what most humanity wants is happiness…. but maybe that was slightly myopic on my part.

    Setting goals i think can be very powerful for self-development and improvement. But when those goals start to dictate our moods and overall quality of life, that is when we get into trouble.


    1. Thanks Half Life Theory. I hadn’t really thought about the difference either until I looked at Seligman’s work. It’s a pretty important differentiator I think, and it even took him awhile to get at (he originally had a “Happiness Theory” until he realized there was no place for mastery and skill development in it). I agree with you that goals are important but we can’t make them the end-all be-all.

  2. Another type-A’r here struggling with the goal setting paradigm. I’m in a stage of life where my long term goals don’t see us in a wildly different life than we have now, so it feels very strange not to have big audacious goals to achieve right now; even all my financial goals are really just to set us up for a future we have choices, not to drastically change our current situation. I’m trying to learn to “sit” in this place, but it’s a hard one.

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