Part 6: Direction – having goals to look forward to
Feeling good about the future is important for our happiness. We all need goals to motivate us and these need to be challenging enough to excite us, but also achievable. If we try to attempt the impossible this brings unnecessary stress. Choosing ambitious but realistic goals gives our lives direction and brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when we achieve them.
Why goals are good for us
Goals are the way we can turn our values and dreams into reality. Happiness doesn't just happen - it comes from thinking, planning and pursuing things that are important to us. Scientific research shows that setting and working towards goals can contribute to happiness in various ways, including:
- Being a source of interest, engagement or pleasure
- Giving us a sense of meaning and purpose
- Bringing a sense of accomplishment when we achieve what we set out to (or milestones along the way) - this also builds our confidence and belief in what we can do in the future
Goals help focus our attention. Actively working towards them appears to be as important for our well-being as achieving the end results we are aiming for.
Goals are most successful when they're something we really want to achieve and when we set them for ourselves - rather than being something someone else wants us to do.
What makes a good goal
Goals can be long-term, short-term or even day-to-day. A long-term goal might be a big career or life goal - for example to become a doctor or obtain a qualification. A short-term goal might be a plan for the coming weeks or months - for example to organise a party or join a sports team. A day-to-day goal might be just to cook something different or contact an old friend.
Smaller goals may seem unimportant. But having personal projects that matter to us - and are manageable - has been consistently shown to boost well-being, especially when they're supported by others around us. And it's even better if we can link our smaller goals back to our bigger aims and priorities in life.
The way we set goals influences the actions we take to achieve them, the effort we put in and how persistent we are at sticking to them. Good goal-setting can be learned. Some of our goals may be ambitious, but it's important that they're still achievable. Achieving our goals brings a sense of accomplishment and makes us feel more positive about the future.
Looking forward with optimism
Science shows that people who are optimistic tend to be happier, healthier and cope better in tough times. Although we may have a natural tendency to be more optimistic or pessimistic, there are things we can do to take a more optimistic outlook, without losing touch with reality.
Optimism is about believing that things are more likely to turn out good than bad. Not surprisingly our level of optimism can influence how persistent we are in aiming for our goals and how we deal with setbacks.
Taking an optimistic approach to our goals includes:
- Choosing goals that take us towards something positive we want to achieve, rather than goals that help us avoid things we don't want.
- Being proactive when problems arise and looking for ways to resolve them, rather than ignoring or putting off dealing with issues.
- Avoiding dwelling on the negative - learning to accept difficult things that we can't change and re-adjusting our goals rather than avoiding them.
Being a realistic optimist
Although there is some evidence of benefits to pessimism - such as in assessing risks to our health - the research suggests that optimism is better for our health and happiness overall. Studies show that in difficult situations - such as starting college, ageing or dealing with medical issues - optimists appear to experience less distress and higher well-being than pessimists.
But it's important we keep our feet on the ground. An overly optimistic outlook can be unhelpful. Being optimistic does not mean blindly ignoring the negative facts. Having unrealistically high expectations can lead to disappointment, a sense of failure and a more pessimistic view of the future.
When we think about the future we are all guessing to some degree - so we have to base our goals and our judgments on what little we know now. Taking a realistic but hopeful view of the outcomes seems to increase the likelihood that things really will turn out ok.
So turn your dreams into reality by setting some goals today.