How To Set Personal Goals That Actually Mean Something To You

To live is to be slowly born.—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy. —Lucille Ball

Far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to be the right person. ~Gloria Steinem

As we grow and mature and gain life experiences, most of us begin to ask the ultimate questions. What is the meaning of life in general and my life in particular? What is my purpose, what are my goals, how do I know my pursuits are worthwhile and bring any value to me or those around me? Am I living my life the “right” way or the “wrong” way? How do I gain happiness?  This quest for self-knowledge and awareness has been a subject of many a book, a movie and a song; highly relatable; a “tale as old as time”. Religious and spiritual leaders, retailers and life coaches offer widely varied ways of getting these answers, but how do we know to trust their expert opinions? The answers may change as we change; they also may stay the same if we fundamentally stay the same, or we may find ourselves still chasing after them and perhaps not ever getting definitive replies.

In the last 30 years, personal goal studies have become a rich area of research and study both in psychology and related disciplines, including pop culture spinoffs. We are constantly in pursuit of goals – graduation; marriage; children; money and items money can buy being the most commonly listed ones. If we were to classify our goals more, we might find that they are divided into personal projects; long-term personal goals; life milestones; immediate pursuits and “best self” goals.

Personal goal researchers assume that human beings are constantly pursuing goals, even when the goals are not focal in awareness, meaning we are not aware that what we are pursuing a life goal we set (Emmons, 1989). Goals drive everything we do, from the smallest to the loftiest.  They direct and govern our behaviors, interactions, and our energy and where we apply it – and our self-regulation as well (when we have to adjust our actions and thoughts to be more in line with our goals). Research shows a strong correlation between goal setting and what we deem to be positive experiences and outcomes in our lives – aka happiness.  Having goals also adds structure to our lives and allows us to feel as if we chart our course instead of mindlessly drifting through – which adds to a feeling of control and reduces anxiety and many.

That is an important and often-overlooked insight – sometimes it’s not the goal itself that matters as much as the feeling of attainment which in turns drives feelings of competence, achievement and avoiding feelings of helplessness and being lost – which all benefit our mental wellness and fitness.

However, some of the ways we undermine our well-being is worrying about whether the goal is “right” and then battling that empty feeling when the goal we attained seems hollow or not meaningful any longer. We spend time regretting the effort, possibly blaming ourselves or others for poor choices and sometimes feeling as if nothing matters in the long run – all because reaching a goal did not turn out the way we imagined it would.

One of the reasons that may happen may be because when setting the goal we did not ensure that it aligns with our personality, values, and capacity. Researchers working on this topic agree that we struggle the most when we either don’t know what we really want and what is truly important to us; or when those things we think we want truly do not line up with our core values, joy of existence and contributions to others’ well-being. In fact, numerous research efforts in the last two decades support the idea that people often operate from a state of self-ignorance. We are simply not sure what will bring us closer to state of happiness and often apply the trial and error approach to goals. Researchers jokingly call this “motivational cluelessness” – people making conscious decisions without having the information needed and being unaware of their feelings, desires, and core values. So is there a good way to determine whether achieving a certain goal will truly make us happy?  Turns out, there may be a way and it points back to how we view the world – do we perceive people and events as having control over our feelings and emotions, or do we view ourselves as owners of our outlook and mood?

If our locus of control is external, we may “blame” outcomes and actions on others.  If we base it internally, we assert that we are in fact in charge of our reactions and response choices to all of life’s scenarios. So if we pursue the goals WE WANT to accomplish as opposed to the goals someone else tells us we OUGHT to pursue, our end all happiness is sure to be greater. We are also more likely to put more effort into being intentional about our goals and gaining the satisfaction of accomplishing them if they concur with our internal sense of self. A good example of this may be joining a gym with a goal to look good to others vs. joining with a purpose of a healthful lifestyle.

How else can we ensure that what we do and accomplish are helping us become our true self? Some of the ways that help with that may be listening to our intuitions more; trying to be mindful in goal setting and looking for a long-term benefit; looking internally as opposed to externally; obtaining input from those whose guidance we value, just to name a few. Yet another way may be a post-goal activity where an individual takes the time to analyze their feelings and sense of well-being upon accomplishing that particular objective.

Since our life is a constant motion forward, our ability to set and achieve fulfilling goals will propel us toward emerging as our best self, in turn answering some of those questions we continue to pose on our journey of discovery.

Sources of research: Sheldon, K. Becoming Oneself (2014).  Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol 18, Issue 4, pp. 349 – 365



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