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Goal Progress and Happiness

How to decrease procrastination and increase happiness.

Key points

  • Procrastination does more than just undermine performance. It can also undermine our happiness and satisfaction with life.
  • Progress on our goals makes us feel happier and more satisfied with life.
  • Positive emotions contribute to our motivation to act.

Sometimes things aren't just moving slowly. They're not moving at all. What are the effects of lack of progress in our goal pursuit?

Procrastination does more than just undermine performance. It undermines our happiness and satisfaction with life. Why? The consensus based on the psychology of action and personal goals clearly indicates that the successful pursuit of meaningful goals plays an important role in the development and maintenance of our psychological well-being. To the extent that we're making progress on our goals, we're happier emotionally and more satisfied with our lives.

The research on goal pursuit and well-being reveals an interesting cycle between progress on our goals and our reports of happiness and life satisfaction (generally referred to as "subjective well-being" or SWB). The cycle looks something like this:

How this cycle works

Progress on our goals makes us feel happier and more satisfied with life (our subjective well-being, SWB, increases). Interestingly, positive emotions have the potential to motivate goal-directed behaviors and volitional processes (e.g., self-regulation to stay on task) that are necessary for further goal progress or attainment. Very clearly you can see how if you "prime the pump" by making some progress on your goals, the resulting increase in your subjective well-being enhances further action and progress.

Ah, doesn't this sound like a mythical perpetual-motion machine? Certainly this can't be true. Both practical experience and research indicate that this relation between progress on our tasks and our well-being provides this sort of synergy. From experience we know, "give a job to a busy person, it will get done." Why? Busy people are in motion. They're making progress, feeling competent and able, so they move forward buoyed by their success and positive emotions. The research points to the same conclusion: goal progress is related to positive emotions and overall enhanced well-being.

What I find particularly important is that the research literature also reveals that we experience the strongest positive emotional response when we make progress on our most difficult goals.

I use this strategically daily. I begin with my most difficult tasks. I use my simple "just get started" mantra to get my focus and some momentum, and this sets in motion a successful, and happy, day.

Don't believe me? Sound too simple? Well, you do need to "prime the pump" a little by strategically setting manageable sub-goals within the difficult task. You have to know exactly what you're trying to accomplish (see the previous blog on Implementation Intentions for more on this approach). And, you have to "own" the task or goal. You have to make it your own. It has to be meaningful to you.

Ah, that's the catch. You don't find the task meaningful, so you put it off (see the previous blog on task aversiveness for what this means). Your rationalization is that this isn't meaningful to me, so why do it? It's not intrinsically interesting. This is an extrinsically assigned task. It's something I "have to" do. It's not something that "I want to" do.

The thing is, extrinsic (external) motivation has more than one flavor. As described by Richard Ryan & Edward Deci in their Self-Determination Theory, the more we internalize and identify with a goal by understanding the value behind it or even simply the importance of the task, the more likely we are to act autonomously. So, making a task your "own" doesn't mean that you initiate or invent each task, it just means that you identify with the task at some level. Psychologists sometimes refer to this as self-congruent or self-concordant goals. In fact, as Bettina Wiese (University of Zurich) summarized our understanding to date, "... empirical research has repeatedly shown that striving toward self-concordant goals strengthens the link between goal progress and well-being" (p. 319).

Concluding thoughts

Progress on our goals leads to more positive emotions and more satisfaction with life. It increases our well-being. In turn, positive emotions contribute to our motivation to act. This is a win-win situation if we can "just get started."


Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Wiese, B.S. (2007). Successful pursuit of personal goals and subjective well-being. In B.R. Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S.D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal Project Pursuit: Goals, Action and Human Flourishing (pp. 301-328). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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