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Are You Pursuing Goals That Truly Matter to You?

How experiences of awe help us set and go after more authentic goals.

Key points

  • Most people who set goals fail to keep them because the goals aren't connected to what truly matters to them.
  • A new study shows that experiences of awe can make people more connected with their authentic selves.
  • Connecting more fully with one's authentic self improves one's ability to set goals that matter.

If you have a complicated relationship with goal setting, you’re not alone.

According to a study on New Year's resolutions by Statistic Brain, only 45 percent of Americans usually set New Year's goals, and 38 percent never do. Of those who did set goals, only 75 percent made it through the first week.

Why do so few people set goals, or keep them when they do?

The answer may be in a new study by researchers Tonglin Jiang and Constantine Sedikides titled, “Awe Motivates Authentic-Self Pursuit via Self-Transcendence: Implications for Prosociality.”

In the study, the authors explore two hypotheses:

  • Awe motivates authentic-self pursuit
  • It does so by amplifying self-transcendence

In other words, they ask when we experience awe, are we more likely to be in alignment with our true or genuine selves? And if so, how can we tap into that sense of awe to set more authentic goals?

The effect of awe on authentic-self pursuit

Jiang and Sedikides tested their hypotheses in a series of 14 studies, using a mix of study types, experiments in both field and laboratory, and a wide range of participants in both China and the United States.

Many of the studies explored the relationship between “dispositional awe” (or, how disposed a person is to regularly feel awe) and authentic-self pursuit by asking participants to agree with statements such as “I feel wonder almost every day” and “I often feel awe." They found that those who agreed — in other words, who were more disposed to feeling awe — were also more motivated to pursue goals that felt true to their authentic selves.

But was this correlation between awe and authentic-self pursuit purely dispositional? Or could it arise from anyone who has experienced awe?

To answer that question, several studies explored how the participants’ sense of awe could be manipulated. For example, the researchers presented half the participants with awe-inducing pictures such as the Aurora Borealis and the Milky Way above Mount Fuji, then asked them to recall the last time they experienced awe. The control group was shown pictures depicting household chores such as laundry and asked to recall the last time they did that chore.

The results were in line with the dispositional awe studies. Participants in the experimental awe group were more likely to want to pursue goals related to their authentic selves.

The consistent finding? Over the 14 studies, awe motivates authentic-self pursuit. Why is this finding so important?

I reached out to Tonglin Jiang to ask how the study pertains to people shaping goals for a new year or life transition.

“I think it suggests that when you feel confused, meaningless, or losing direction, you could look up into the sky, or commune with nature,” she wrote back. “The awe feelings induced by them would liberate you from your daily triviality and help you find your inner compass.”

Setting goals that are authentic

As I’ve worked with literally thousands of people — from leaders and founders to creatives and entrepreneurs — I have noticed a few key elements that help people keep pursuing goals once they’ve set them. And those elements tie directly to this study.

One reason so many of us abandon goals is that they don’t align with our real vision for ourselves or our work in the world. We set inauthentic goals that don’t resonate, or “should” goals which are based around things we feel we ought to do, rather than things that inherently motivate us or light us up.

Or, we shun the whole idea of goal-setting because past experiences led to disappointment.

For example, a common new year goal is to lose weight or get into shape, which we all feel we “should” do.

Part of the inherent problem, too, is our method for goal-setting. We fixate on an outcome, write it down, and then forget about it.

There’s little meaning in the outcome and very little meaning in the actual process.

So no wonder we meaning-making mammals forget about ‘em.

It’s important to have meaningful experiences that tap into our deep why and motivation that then give rise to the what or goal we’re pursuing. Then we’ll likely be more motivated to map out the how and next steps to get there.

This study corroborates a key finding in my body of work: that experiences of wonder can be part of our method for setting and then pursuing goals that matter.

We can pursue experiences of awe and wonder to tap into our authentic selves. Doing so in turn can transform that uninspired goal into something that truly motivates us to become a person, for instance, who relishes this one life by bringing more curiosity and care to diet or exercise.

But how do you pursue experiences of awe when you don’t live next to the Grand Canyon?

Setting goals that are exceptional

A client founded a racial equity organization that has performed exceptional work over the past five years. On the surface, her goals are aligned with her authentic self. But over the past few years, she’s found herself exhausted by the work rather than energized by it.

I encourage several clients and members of my mastermind inner circles to find a “horizon spot.” A horizon spot is a place where they can experience a big visual expanse. The place should be easy to access and invoke a feeling of openness and positivity.

It turns out that finding a horizon spot is an exercise I have innately done since I was a teenager — finding a distant horizon to get perspective and reflect.

The point is to gain perspective and create space to ask questions like, “Who am I? Who have I always been? How do I most want to show up? What do I most want to be known for?”

Geography and place can expand our sense of self and induce an experience of wonder or awe.

When my client found her horizon spot and began asking those deeper questions, the answers led her to set goals for a new initiative outside of, yet in relationship to, her organization — one that has energized her again.

In experiencing awe, we can allow ourselves to crack open and see ourselves in relation to a much bigger sphere of influence, and set goals that are even more expansive and in alignment with our authentic self than what we had previously planned.

Find your experience of awe

In my book Tracking Wonder: Reclaiming a Life of Meaning and Possibility in a World Obsessed With Productivity, I refer to horizon spots in two contexts.

One is regarding openness. When you’re beginning something new — a new initiative, a new chapter in your life or work, a new year — a horizon spot can keep you buoyant and open to possibility.

The other is hope. A horizon spot can help us get perspective when times feel hard. Small, meaningful goals are essential among people who are hopeful amidst adversity.

Before setting next year’s goals, take time to experience awe, and find a horizon spot where you can gain a big visual expanse, whether that’s a viewpoint on a nearby hike or the highest point in your town. Position your body so you can gaze directly onto the horizon before you, and permit yourself to truly experience the feeling of openness, and daydream forward in your life.

I encourage you to take your journal and explore your Hope Horizon. Ask yourself, What is one meaningful goal you aim to reach within the next three months or less?

Here are some other questions to help you explore:

  • What will you create in 2023?
  • How will you show up for your community?
  • How will your life have even more meaning and fulfillment?
  • How can you live in closer alignment with your authentic self?

Track experiences of wonder and awe to open your perspective beyond the narrow “should” goals, and instead create a more expansive set of actionable goals that truly matter.


Are you ready to set better goals for 2023? Join us December 10 for Vision 2023: Shape an Actionable Plan for the Work that Matters.

Jiang T, Sedikides C. Awe motivates authentic-self pursuit via self-transcendence: Implications for prosociality. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2022 Sep;123(3):576-596. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000381. Epub 2021 Dec 2. PMID: 34855435.

New Years Resolutions Statistics. Statistic Brain Research Institute.

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