Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Living Intentionally and Its Impact

The importance of setting your intentions.

Sometimes, we find ourselves at a crossroads where we must decide how we respond to a situation. Those decisions often fall into one of two categories. The first is when we focus on “Doing All the Good We Can” for ourselves and others. This could look like offering to get someone a cup of coffee or holding the door for them as they walk in. This could also be as simple as allowing ourselves the time to exercise, prepare a healthy meal, or read a book to unwind.

The second category is when we focus on a false sense of serving ourselves. Think of these decisions as ones that feel good in the moment but leave you feeling worse after the day is through. For example, when someone says something that hurts us, our first instinct typically is to lash out. Subconsciously, our mind convinces us that “they deserve this,” but when the dust settles, neither person feels better for it. If you feel you can relate, you are not alone!

The Unseen Benefits of Living Intentionally

The science behind setting intentions reveals it as a powerful tool for shaping our emotional experiences. A 2018 study by Allison M. Sweeney and Antonio Freitas found that a strong interaction exists between our daily intentions and actual performances. What they found is that when we set clear, achievable intentions—such as committing to a few good deeds per day—we engage in a form of motivated reasoning that can heighten the sense of satisfaction we receive when we exceed those goals. This phenomenon underscores the importance of setting intentions not just as a directional compass but as a crucial practice for our emotional well-being. By making the choice to align our daily actions with our intentions, we not only live life with purpose but also foster a deeper sense of achievement and happiness

So, what happens if we do not set our intentions? Many of us have experienced the feeling of drifting through the day in a fog. Those days may feel like they lack significance, which is why setting our intentions is so important. Our intentions give us an invaluable sense of purpose and control. Research by Mark Conner and Peter Norman (2022) supports this notion, showing that setting specific intentions about when, where, and how to pursue our goals significantly improves the chances of achieving them.

Setting Intentions for a Happier and Healthier Life

Compelling research conducted by Eric S. Kim and colleagues in 2021 shed new light on the impact that living intentionally can have on our overall health and well-being. The study revealed that individuals who have a clear sense of purpose not only live longer but also experience better sleep, more happiness, and less feelings of loneliness. We can think of our intention as a "micro purpose," which acts as an immediate, attainable goal that enriches our days with meaning. It’s these little goals that make a big difference in our lives, bringing with them a steady flow of joy. By practicing setting intentions, we do more than just steer our lives with a clear sense of purpose and satisfaction. We also boost our physical, mental, and social health. It’s all about the amazing perks that come from living intentionally.

The Impact of Setting Intentions That Benefit Others

Kumar and Epley’s 2023 study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, shows that when we do something kind, like handing out hot chocolate in a park or giving a small gift, it makes a bigger splash than we think. Turns out, people on the receiving end of these random acts of kindness feel way happier than the givers expect.

The study found that those of us giving the kindness often don’t realize just how warm and fuzzy our actions make others feel, mostly because we’re a bit biased in how we judge our own gestures. This finding is a game-changer for anyone trying to be more intentional and positive every day. By understanding that our small, kind deeds actually have a huge impact, we’re more likely to keep up the good work. This not only boosts our own mood but also spreads joy further than we might imagine, encouraging a chain of kindness that keeps giving back. So, let's not underestimate the power of a simple act of kindness; it can truly light up someone's day more than we realize.

While the science of intentions is fascinating, it is not a new truth. Shared for generations, the Parable of the Two Wolves teaches that within each of us reside two forces: one dark and one light. Every day, we face the choice of which wolf to feed—will it be the one that fosters bitterness and regret, or the one that promotes growth and joy? Much like the essential message of this parable, the practice of setting intentions allows us to consciously choose the light in our daily interactions. By setting positive intentions each day, we feed the good wolf, encouraging a life filled with purpose, health, and happiness. It takes practice but the results are worth the effort.


Conner, M., & Norman, P. (2022). Understanding the intention-behavior gap: The role of intention strength. Frontiers in Psychology.

Sweeney, A. M., & Freitas, A. (2018). When Do Intended Performance Standards Predict Goal-Related Affect? A Motivated-Reasoning Perspective. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(3), 295-306.

Kumar, Amit & Epley, Nicholas. (2022). A Little Good Goes an Unexpectedly Long Way: Underestimating the Positive Impact of Kindness on Recipients. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 152. 10.1037/xge0001271.

Kim, E. S., Chen, Y., Nakamura, J., Ryff, C., & VanderWeele, T. (2021). Sense of Purpose in Life and Subsequent Physical, Behavioral, and Psychosocial Health: An Outcome-Wide Approach. American Journal of Health Promotion, 36(1), 137-147.

More from Harry Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today