What makes a happy goal?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 of The Year of Happy‘s month on goals. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

If you signed up for The Year of Happy, that means that one of your life goals might be to “be happy.” You probably have many other goals around your career, your relationships, and your health – whether you’ve written them down or not. You might even have a bucket list. But how do goals turn into reality?

That’s the topic we’ll explore this month, and it has a few parts:

  • We need to pick the right goals to start with (Week 1).
  • We need to use the right strategies to reach our goals (Week 2)
  • We need to shore up our self-control and motivation (Week 4).

On the plus side, the simple act of setting goals has benefits (Week 3). You’ll see changes in your attitude even if you struggle to reach your goals, as long as you commit to trying.

For now, we start off with how to choose a healthy goal. Let’s take the example of “be happy” and see if we can turn it into a better goal.

1. Intrinsic goals

The first test of a good goal is to make sure we’re choosing it for the right reasons. Intrinsic goals are goals that we truly value and endorse; extrinsic goals are goals that are set by other people – either explicitly or not. Following the career our parents want us to pursue, or eating healthier because our wife thinks we should (when we’re not convinced), are extrinsic goals.

According to self-determination theorists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, most intrinsic goals are centered on our fundamental human needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Goals to connect with and care for others, create value in the world, and increase our freedom are typically intrinsic.

In contrast, the desire for fame, power, or money tends to be an extrinsic goal. Deci and Ryan believe that we fall back on these external symbols of self-worth when we have trouble satisfying our three fundamental needs.

Luckily, the goal to be happy is an intrinsic one (at least 99% of the time). We don’t need anyone to convince us why we should be happy; it’s one of the most basic and authentic desires that we have.

2. Specific and difficult

Next, we want to set goals that are specific and difficult. Across dozens of studies, researchers have shown that specific, difficult goals give us better results than vague goals, unambitious goals, or no goals at all. “I’ll do my best” doesn’t cut it. 

Difficult goals call us to rise to the challenge – we increase effort, focus, and commitment. We use more effective strategies, and we persist longer in the face of difficulty. Employees who see their job as challenging actually tend to have higher performance reviews, and they experience increases in their job satisfaction, feelings of achievement, and happiness over time. Plus, unambitious goals are a recipe for mediocrity. “People pretty much do what is asked of them, and rarely more,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson in Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

Watch swimmer Diana Nyad describe her epic, dangerous, seemingly-impossible swim from Cuba to Florida, and how the dream of such a difficult goal helped her persist in the final 15 hours:

Setting specific goals means we have more clarity on whether we’ve achieved them or not. If a goal is vague, we’ll be tempted to check it off our list when we get tired or bored. “Be happy” certainly passes the test of being a difficult goal, but it fails miserably on specificity. What exactly does it mean to “be happy”? How happy do we want to be? 

We could say that we want to “achieve a happiness level of 8/10.” This goal still needs further refinement – as we’ll see below – but at least it’s more specific. In this video, happiness expert Gretchen Rubin talks about some ideas for translating abstract goals into concrete ones:

3. Mastery vs. performance goals

Goals are about growth, and yet some goals seem to forget about the growing stage altogether and demand that we perform – now. These “performance goals” – like “earn a 4.0 GPA,” “get a date,” or even “achieve a happiness level of 8/10” – pass judgment on how well we’re doing. In contrast, “mastery goals” ask for progress, not performance. Mastery goals might include “improve my grade in chemistry,” “ask someone out on a date each week,” or “try a new happiness practice every month.”

Mastery goals orient us toward improvement. Halvorson calls them “get better” goals, while performance goals are “be good” goals. Although there are rare cases when performance goals are beneficial – like when a task is super-easy and we want to complete it faster – mastery goals tend to give us the best attitude and the best chance of success.

Writer James Clear talks about the difference between performance and mastery goals – or what he calls goals and systems – in this article:

Read “Forget about Setting Goals, Focus on This Instead”

4. What vs. why

Once you have a goal – say, to try a new happiness practice every month – there are different ways of thinking about it. For example, say you choose a gratitude practice for your first month. If you focused on the “what,” you would tell yourself: Tonight, I need to sit down for 5 minutes and write down three things I’m grateful for today. Focusing on the “what” means thinking about the concrete actions involved in a goal. If your goal is to go to the gym three times a week, you might think about leaving the office at 5:30 pm to workout. Thinking about “what” helps us nail down logistics and make sure things get done.

But there’s another way to think about goals, and that is to focus on the “why.” Maybe the prospect of writing down three things you’re grateful for isn’t inspiring, but you do feel energized by making your life better or becoming a happier person. When it comes time to write in your gratitude journal, focusing on the reasons for what you’re doing can be helpful. In these cases, the goal is the same – the difference is just in how we think about it.

5. Promotion vs. prevention goals

Finally, depending on your personality, you may prefer to focus on what you stand to gain or what you stand to lose: promotion vs. prevention.

Promotion goals might including seeing your friends every week, working on a happiness practice, or toning muscle. Prevention goals might include not losing touch with friends, minimizing panic attacks, or avoiding diabetes.

To figure out if you typically have a promotion or a prevention focus, consider these questions:

  • Are you motivated by positive or negative feedback? Praise and positive role models energize people with a promotion focus. Criticism and negative role models – people who have failed – spur on the prevention-focused among us.
  • Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Optimists tend to pursue promotion goals, while pessimists pursue prevention goals.
  • Do you focus on speed or accuracy? We’re faster (and less accurate) when pursuing promotion goals, but slower and more accurate for prevention goals.
  • When you achieve your goals, do you feel happy or calm? Promotion goals bring happiness when we achieve them and sadness when we don’t; prevention goals bring relaxation when we achieve them and anxiety when we don’t.
  • Do you value luxury and style, or safety and reliability? That’s promotion and prevention, respectively.
  • Are you more worried about missing an opportunity, or making a mistake? Promotion-focused people take more risks, so they have more failures, too; prevention-focused people prefer to stick with what they know.

We each have a tendency to focus on promotion or prevention, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pursue the other type of goal. In fact, as Halvorson explains, it’s often best to start with a promotion focus – try a new happiness practice every month – and then switch to prevention – don’t lose my happiness practice habit. Promotion goals can give us the energy to start, but prevention goals might be best for inspiring persistence and consistency.

A quick guide: How to formulate your goals

All these distinctions – mastery vs. performance, what vs. why, promotion vs. prevention – can be a bit confusing, so Halvorson includes a quick guide to choosing the right goal depending on the situation. Here’s what she recommends:

  • When things are easy, choose performance and promotion goals. It turns out that students with performance goals get the highest grades, and Scrabble players with performance goals perform better when extra credit points are at stake. It’s best to choose a difficult goal, but this approach works when you’re given a goal that’s fairly easy.
  • When you need motivation, focus on “why” and prevention. When we think of the meaning or purpose behind our actions, we tend to be less impulsive, less susceptible to temptation, and more in control. Thinking about what you have to lose (prevention) also helps tame the urge to slack off.
  • When things are difficult, focus on “what,” prevention, and mastery. When the task is unfamiliar or complex, the problem is less about motivation and more about logistics. Thinking about the “what” helps us figure out which steps to take and when. Difficult goals may inspire more pessimism than optimism, which is just what we need when we have a prevention focus. And studies have shown that people who focus on mastery tend to be less phased by challenges and interruptions.
  • When there are temptations, focus on “why” and prevention. Choosing fruit over sweets (a “what”) seems like a drag, but getting fit enough to run a marathon (“why”) might help us pass on the devil’s food cake. Even better would be to have a prevention focus, like “avoiding that belly fat” – prevention goals help us stick to the plan and resist temptations in our path. 
  • When you need to be creative, focus on promotion. Prevention narrows our thinking, while promotion opens it up.
  • When you want to enjoy the journey, focus on mastery. People who pursue mastery goals like their classes and jobs more, and even enjoy life more as a whole.

To grow, you need a growth mindset

Stanford University professor Carol Dweck discovered that people of all ages – even as young as four years old – have one of two mindsets: she called them a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.” People with a growth mindset savor challenge and learning; people with a fixed mindset are simply trying to prove how great they are already.

Our mindsets stem from our beliefs about abilities, traits, and intelligence. Fixed-mindset people think intelligence or skill is fixed – it can’t be fundamentally changed, so every encounter is simply a test. “Every situation calls for a confirmation of intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” Dweck writes. 

Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset believe they can cultivate their intelligence and skills through effort. They focus on growth and improvement; they see challenges (and failures) as a learning opportunity, not an intimidating test. When they fail, they can turn their attention to doing better next time rather than soothing their fragile self-confidence. They’re more willing to try new things.

But someone with a fixed mindset feels threatened by challenging tasks – this means I’m not skilled/savvy/intelligent enough! So they tend to give up, make excuses, cheat, or shy away from these tasks altogether.

For example, Hong Kong university students who need to know English for school are more likely to want to take an English class if they have a growth mindset. Fixed mindset students, who know they need the language skills but are intimidated by the challenge, are more likely to decline. Pre-med students with a growth mindset do better in a grueling chemistry class and bounce back after a bad grade because they don’t take it personally – it’s valuable feedback, not a judgment of their intellectual worth.

When setting goals, it’s important to know what mindset you’re bringing into it. (It’s possible to have different mindsets in different areas of life, like the humble, growth-oriented executive who can’t take a criticism at home.) If you have a growth mindset, you’ll be more open to feedback about your progress and more willing to take an honest look at yourself; you’ll set mastery goals. If you have a fixed mindset, watch out for the tendency to set performance goals and the need to feel superior to others. It’s best to focus on improvement and cultivate a growth mindset, which we’ll learn more about in Week 4.

Watch Carol Dweck explain her experiments in fixed mindset vs. growth mindset, and what they have to do with kids’ puzzles, hot sauce, and the Middle East:

So let’s come back to our “be happy” goal, which has evolved into something like “do a happiness practice every day.” This goal is intrinsic, specific, and difficult, and it focuses on mastery (learning and improving). If you endorse this goal but are still having trouble, try to switch your focus. Focus on “what” and say, “I’ll write for 5 minutes each night at 9 pm,” or focus on “why” and say, “I want to be a happier mother to my children.” Focus on promotion and imagine what a happier life would look like, or focus on prevention and think about the depression you’re keeping at bay. Goals, perhaps more than any other theme we’ve studied so far, have to be tailored to you.

Are your happiness goals any clearer now? How would you phrase them? Share on our Year of Happy Facebook group

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to achieve your goals

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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