The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Generalized Goals Linked to Depression

Setting specific goals breaks the cycle of negativity and depression.

A new study released on July 8, 2013 found that people with depression tend to make more generalized personal goals than people who are not depressed. Which comes first, depression or generalized goal-setting? Does depression lead to ambiguous goals or does not setting and achieving specific goals trigger depression?

The new study was conducted by Dr. Joanne Dickson, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society. Dickson asked participants in the study to make lists of personal goals and then analyzed the data and found dramatic differences in goal-setting habits between people who suffered from depression and those who were not depressed.

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Dickson said, "This study, for the first time, examined whether this trait also encompasses personal goals. We found that the goals that people with clinical depression listed lacked a specific focus, making it more difficult to achieve them and therefore creating a downward cycle of negative thoughts.”

Are you someone who regularly sets specific goals and achieves them? Would you consider yourself depressed? Setting specific goals and realizing them triggers an electro-chemical chain reaction in your brain that makes you feel rewarded which stimulates happiness, motivation, and self-esteem.

What are your short, medium and long-term goals?

The participants in the study were asked to list goals they would like to achieve at any time in the short, medium or long-term. How would you respond to this question? Dr. Dickson categorized goals based on their degree of specificity. The study differentiated between ‘global, generalized or abstract goals’ and 'specific or measurable' goals. For example, 'to be happy' would represent a general  or ‘global’ goal, whereas, a goal such as 'improve my 5-mile running time this summer' would represent a more specific goal.

Researchers found that while both depressed and nondepressed people generated the same number of goals, people with depression listed goals which were more general and abstract. The study also found that depressed people were much more likely to give non-specific reasons for achieving and not achieving their goals.

Working out regularly is a terrific way to set a specific goal and reap the mental and physical benefits of achieving that goal. The daily routine of completing a workout reinforces specific goal setting at a micro and macro level. For example, when you are lifting weights, each rep and each set you complete of a specific exercise gives you the ‘ding, ding, ding’ hit of dopamine and the reward of having achieved a micro goal. When you leave the gym after completing the entire workout you have the benefits of having completed a specific micro- and macro-goal.

Making any type of checklist in the morning is a great way to feel rewarded and stay motivated and proactive to continue setting and achieving goals in all aspects of your life. If you say ‘I am going to run for 30 minutes outside or on the treadmill before work today’ you have set a very specific goal that you can check off your list as an accomplishment and set the tone for your day. 

Conclusion: The importance of being able to say: “Yes! I did it!”

Having very broad and abstract goals may maintain and exacerbate depression. Breaking a long-term goal down into doable doses that you nibble away at every day is the best way to stay motivated, reduce negativity, combat depression, and (most importantly) to achieve the goal. 

Goals that are not specific remain ambiguous and are almost impossible to visualize. A goal should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you are unable to visualize a goal and consciously realize when the goal is completed by saying “Yes! I did it!” your reward circuitry isn't activited. You can break this vicious cycle of lowered motivation by constantly setting tangible short, medium and long-term goals in all areas of your life and having a strategic game plan how you will achieve your goals. 

Dr. Joanne Dickson concludes: "We know that depression is associated with negative thoughts and a tendency to overgeneralise, particularly in reference to how people think about themselves and their past memories." Adding, "These findings could inform the development of effective new ways of treating clinical depression. Helping depressed people set specific goals and generate specific reasons for goal achievement may increase their chances of realizing them which could break the cycle of negativity which is coupled with depression."

This skillset that you gain through working out regularly reinforces a habit of setting specific goals and achieving them. The habit of setting and achieving goals through regular exercise reinforces a habit of success at a neural level. You can hardwire your mind to constantly set and achieve goals in all areas of your life. This principle is the driving force of The Athlete’s Way

Please check out my Psychology Today blog, The Secret to Achieving a Big Goal Is... for more specific tips on setting and achieving non-generalized goals.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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