New Year’s Eve is a time to celebrate. It's a holiday of favorite tradition—countdowns, fireworks, Champagne ... and resolutions. For many, the advent of a new year means big promises to take big steps to make big changes. This will be the year to get a better body, a better salary, or a better love life. Some of us will honor the tradition this month and declare our own New Year’s resolutions. Others will resist the urge—and make fun of the rest of us.
They may have a point. Typically, as soon as the festivities are over, New Year’s resolutions become faint memories. Most of us fail to achieve the goals we set because we forget, get distracted, or just give up. Year after year we state the same goals, make the same promises, and then repeat the same excuses. The bottom line? No results.
There is really one question: Why bother? Why bother to set all of these goals when chances are that not only will we not achieve them, but we will forget them halfway through the year, only to pull them out of the chest of buried dreams again next year?
So let’s stop.
Let’s put an end to this tiresome tradition, and find a new way. Because if we approach all of our life goals the way we approach our New Year's resolutions, we're in big trouble.
Resolutions are a subtype of goals, and are really no different than any other. The only difference is that you declare them at the beginning of the year. So maybe a better question to ask is: Why do we need goals at all? Do we need to be so achievement-oriented? Do we always need to be thinking about what to do next? Why do we need to constantly stress our bodies and stretch our minds? Why do we feel the need to live in the future instead of the present?
I don’t have an all-encompassing answer to this question, and I'm not aware of any singular, definitive scientific explanation. Most likely, we all have our own reasons for setting goals. These are mine:
1. It’s how things get done.
From quotidian things like getting up for work in the morning to once-in-a-lifetime dreams like seeing the Great Wall of China, things get done because we treat them like goals that need to be accomplished.
2. It’s the language of the brain.
One of the most important functions of the brain—and the most recent in terms of our evolution—is executive function, a cluster of cognitive abilities that evolved to enable us to set and achieve goals. This brain function is what sets us apart from all other living things. Most other creatures react based on instinct; we take action based on planning.
3. Goals mean clarity.
Goals provide you with a vision and a direction. They give you a destination and enable you to plan your course into your future. Without goals, you risk wasting your resources (time, money, energy) feeling confused and overwhelmed, and being unprepared when opportunities arise.
4. Goals give us meaning.
Goals give life meaning through purpose. Purpose is the deeper reason for why we want to accomplish a goal. Behind the stated goal ("I want to get a Ph.D. in psychology … ") is our desire to do something to improve our lives and the lives of others (" … so that I can contribute to the fight against mental illness."). Purpose is what motivates us and moves us to take action.
5. They make us feel good.
They literally do. As neuroscientists learn more and more about the emotional circuits of the brain, they are discovering that one of our most basic emotional reactions is happiness through pursuit. Being actively engaged in the pursuit of a goal activates the brain’s pleasure centers, independent of the outcome. It seems that we derive more pleasure from chasing our dreams than from achieving them. Could that overused adage about the journey and the destination have an actual biological substrate?
6. Goals mean progress.
In every aspect of human life, we achieve progress through setting goals. Goals are what drive advances in science, education, medicine, public policy, law, and government. Progress in all these fields happens when people set, pursue, and achieve goals. If there are no goals, there is confusion. And confusion can delay or thwart progress.
7. The alternative is the default.
Without suggesting that we should plan out every minute of our lives, think about what your default is: What do you do when you are not working toward getting something done? Is it a productive or enjoyable default? Or is it something that you later regret, like binge-watching a TV show and reading Facebook posts?
8. Goals keep us connected.
Goals keep people connected. Common goals are the foundational block upon which we build communities. From families to sports teams, from small start-ups to large corporations, and from social movements to entire nations, the success of a group depends on how much its members believe in a common goal.
I realize that my reasons may not be your reasons. What drives me to set goals, on New Year’s Day or any day, may not be what drives you. But instead of making light of a tradition, let’s put our heads together to think of more reasons to keep it alive.
Why do you think we need goals? Share your thoughts below!