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5 Tips for Setting Healthy Goals

According to research, not all goals are equally good for us.

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Take a moment to think of a time when you were working toward a goal. You may have experienced a variety of feelings. If you made progress, you probably felt happy or proud. If you thought you might fail, you may have felt anxious, frustrated, or sad.

Our emotions are intimately tied to our goals. In one study, for instance, researchers followed almost two hundred college students for an entire year. During that time, students completed six surveys. At the beginning of each semester, they were asked to list eight personal goals. Midway through each semester, they were asked to rate how much progress they had made on those goals. And, finally, at the end of each semester, they filled out tests of psychological well-being. Not surprisingly, the more progress they made on their goals, the greater their psychological well-being ended up.

Goals are so important to our emotional lives that research even shows that simply having them is associated with greater well-being, whether or not we ultimately accomplish them.

But, don’t make the mistake of thinking all goals are equally good for us. Numerous studies show that some goals are better than others. Here are five tips for setting goals that will set you up for success and happiness:

1. Our goals should be important to us.

It may seem almost too obvious to mention, but people are more committed to pursuing goals that are personally important to them than goals that aren’t. Such goals not only motivate us more but, when we achieve them, also lead to greater positive feelings. Despite knowing this on a superficial level, many of us spend most of our time pursuing goals that aren’t personally important to us—like completing work assignments or doing the laundry. There’s nothing necessarily unhealthy about that. It’s good to avoid detrimental consequences like getting fired or having no clean clothes to wear. But it’s worth making sure that at least some of the goals in our lives are actually ones we care about.

2. Our goals shouldn’t be too easy or too hard.

People receive a stronger positive emotional kick from accomplishing harder goals than easier ones. Difficult goals are also more motivating, leading to better performance. In one classic study, researchers followed typists in a large corporation for ten weeks. Each week, the typists were given goals regarding how many lines they should type, with some being assigned more ambitious goals than others. According to the results, the more difficult the goals were, the better the typists did.

Of course, difficult goals are only motivating to a point. When a goal is too hard, this undermines motivation. If you were assigned to read Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice (or any other 300-page book) cover-to-cover in 10 minutes, you probably wouldn’t feel very motivated to try, even if you could earn a thousand dollars for doing so. If, however, you were offered the same reward for finishing the book in a week, you might feel more enthusiastic. For this reason, the most motivating goals are what psychologists term “stretch goals,” those that are difficult enough to be a stretch, but not so difficult that they seem unattainable. Luckily, almost any goal can be made into a stretch goal simply by adjusting details like how quickly or thoroughly we hope to accomplish it.

3. Our goals should involve accomplishing something, not avoiding something.

Some goals involve attaining, achieving, or increasing something, while others involve avoiding, stopping, or reducing something. We’ve all had both types of goals. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight or stop smoking, you’ve had avoidance goals.

Depending on how we choose to frame them, many goals can set in either an avoidance- or approach-oriented way. We could either strive to “avoid being lonely” or to “make friends,” for instance. People who habitually frame their goals in approach-oriented ways tend to be more successful at achieving them than those who frame their goals in avoidance-oriented ways. In part, that’s because avoidance goals focus our attention on exactly the unpleasant outcomes we’re trying to prevent. As the old saying goes, it’s important to “keep our eyes on the prize,” rather than dwell on the possibility of failure.

4. Our goals should be specific.

The more specific a goal is, the more it details exactly what the outcome will be and how we’ll accomplish it. The goal of “eating healthily,” for instance, isn’t as specific as the goal of “eating a serving of vegetables with each meal.”

In general, people perform better when their goals are more specific. In one study, college students were asked to list out 15 goals they were working on in their lives. Researchers later rated how specific each person’s goals were on a scale from 1 to 5. They also asked participants to fill out surveys assessing mood and mental health, among other outcomes. According to the results, participants with more specific goals experienced less psychological distress and depression.

5. Our goals should be consistent with our most cherished values.

Psychologists use the term “self-concordant” to refer to goals that satisfy our deepest values, often including personal growth and interpersonal closeness. Such goals are in stark contrast with more superficial goals that lead to extrinsic rewards like wealth, status, or fame. According to numerous studies, people are more likely to achieve self-concordant goals, perhaps because they’re more motivated to put effort into pursuing them. People with greater numbers of self-concordant goals also tend to be happier, probably because their goals ultimately are more satisfying. We all have different values, of course, and not all of our goals need to be aligned with what we find most meaningful in life. But, if none of your goals are, it's worth considering whether there might be some changes you could make—even small ones—to bring your values just a little more into your daily life.

It’s a surprising and reassuring fact that none of these five tips have anything to do with a goal’s specific content. On a gut level, it may be tempting to ask questions like: “Are romantic goals better than work goals?” or “Is it healthier to focus on my relationships or my hobbies?” But exactly what the goals are has less to do with whether or not it’s healthy for us than how we go about setting it. With a little forethought, almost any goal can be made to fit these five criteria, ultimately helping us not only to be more successful but also more satisfied with our lives.

More from David B. Feldman Ph.D.
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