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We all have in some point of our life set up goals for ourselves. Like setting up new year’s resolutions or career goals or goals in the workplace etc. Whatever that may be, we all have some experience with setting up goals for ourselves.

Goal setting can be a very effective means, not only for improving our productivity, but also for improving our well-being. At the onset, goal setting seems like a fairly simple process, like you write down the goal “be happy” and then you go make it happen, but using goal setting effectively can be challenging, especially when we want to use goals to increase our well-being.

Goal setting involves how to set the right goals, and how to follow through on our goals once we have set them. Therefore, it can be valuable to keep in mind some general scientific advice for what to look out for when you are choosing goals to support well-being.  

Psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book, “The How of Happiness”, provides us valuable tips on goal setting. First, she distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Intrinsic goals are ones we pursue because we find them inherently valuable and satisfying. They help us grow as a person, or they help us connect with our communities. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are valued instrumentally for something else they can provide us, and they are often connected to other people’s opinions about us. Goals for wealth, beauty, and fame are examples of extrinsic goals. This does not mean we should never have goals for financial success. But what we should remember is that these can provide us with the means necessary for supporting our intrinsic goals. In order to maximize our well-being, we should always remember that things like money and power are extrinsic goals, valuable not in themselves, but for what they can bring. So, they always need to be linked to intrinsic goals.

Lyubomirsky also suggests that it is important to focus on flexible and appropriate goals. It is important for us to consider the stage of life we are in, the abilities we have and the norms of the culture we are living in. For example, younger people tend to have certain types of priorities like getting an education, embarking on a career, getting married etc. Older people, on the other hand, tend to focus more on goals that are emotionally meaningful. In addition to age differences, there may also be unexpected changes in health, finances, or family situation that we should take into consideration. Remaining inflexible in such situations can work against our well-being. Being realistic and creative about how to move forward in the particular situation in which we find ourselves can support our well-being.

Finally, Lyubomirsky suggests choosing goals that involve taking up a new activity over goals for improving our circumstances. Research indicates that we are likely to adapt quickly to the enhanced well-being brought by materialistic things like a bigger TV or a new car. Although they may help us feel happier in the short term, the novelty wears off quickly, and our lives with the new item become the new normal. Activity goals, on the other hand, are more resistant to adaptation because they open us up to novelty on an ongoing basis. Joining a biking club, for example, will help meet new people with similar interests, share new experiences and build connections. Joining a cooking class opens us up to a range of new experiences and then prepares us for even more novel experiences as we continue to apply what we have learned in new ways long after the class is over.

Following these basic principles of goal settings will help develop your own goal-setting skills to create more effective goals and follow through once you set them.

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