Solving Unsolvable Problems

Putting science to practice

Got Big Plans? Here's How to Start

The difference between taking action and getting bogged down is all in your head

Our lives are awash in goals. But in an era when setting and abandoning goals seems more popular than Facebook and Twitter combined, how do we know what kinds of goals actually help us feel better and accomplish something?

Put another way, should you: a) try to eat dinner together as a family five times a week, or b) try to bring your family closer to each other?

Should you a) sign up to run a 10K that takes place in three months, or b) try to get in better shape?

Should you a) seek a raise at work, or b) seek a feeling that you are well regarded at work?

On the surface the choices seem silly. One goal appears to be just a complementary variation on the other. But there is a major distinction.

The group A goals are all concrete while the group B goals are all abstract.

Concrete goals are direct and measurable—you can tell for a fact if they’ve been achieved. Abstract goals are suggestive, but still somewhat squishy. “Am I there yet?” you might ask yourself, and not really know. And now a new study demonstrates that we indeed feel happier pursuing concrete goals than abstract goals.

In field and laboratory experiments, Melanie Rudd, Jennifer Aaker, and Michael North asked participants to try to make someone smile (concrete) or try to make someone happier (abstract). They asked some to increase their recycling rate (concrete) or improve the environment (abstract).

People did better—and felt happier—pursuing the concrete goals. Much of this effect owes to the fact that those pursuing a concrete goal had an easier time achieving a reality that matched their expectations. The quest for the squishy abstract ending, meanwhile, made it vastly harder for people to assess what kind of effect they could have, and subsequently left many feeling disappointed.

Intriguingly, when asked to predict how goals would affect them, participants underestimated the value of concrete targets.

In fact, most of us have missed the value of concrete targets, despite the fact that we've all witnessed this dynamic in our own lives. Why are we capable of a surge of effort at work when facing a deadline, yet unable to muster much fervor on an ordinary day? It’s the difference between the concrete goal of finishing a project and the abstract goal of doing good work.

To better achieve both happiness and satisfaction, take the goals that are bouncing around in your head right now and make them more concrete.

Dream of learning to play the piano? Stop. Instead, make your goal learning to play one particular song.

Long to be a well-traveled adventurer? Stop. Make a list, in ranked order, of cities or places you most want to visit.

Concrete goals are direct, action-oriented, and energizing. Here’s a concrete goal for you today: Take the most important goals you are pursuing right now and restate them in concrete form.



1. One study found 92 percent of Americans fail at their New Year’s resolutions. By comparison, among those Americans who use the internet, only 74 percent use a social media site.

2. Rudd, Melanie, Jennifer Aaker, and Michael Norton. 2014. "Getting the Most out of Giving: Concretely Framing a Prosocial Goal Maximizes Happiness." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 54 (September): 11-24.

David Niven, Ph.D., is a social scientist who teaches at the University of Cincinnati. David's books include It's Not About the Shark and the 100 Simple Secrets series.


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