Your goal? What do you want? appiness! I beg your pardon!

I have in the past highlighted some of the research casting doubt on the effectiveness of goal setting as a motivational technique. There is another aspect to the goal setting story that is worth reflecting on, and that is the relationship between goal setting and happiness. Indeed this was the topic of a recent paper by Michael Wiederman in Scientific American, entitled Why it’s so hard to be happy.

When you set a career goal you are highlighting that there is something about your current circumstances that you want to change, and that you will be happier when you achieve your goal of changing your circumstances. Such thinking means accepting two premises: firstly, my current circumstances are not making me happy (if they were why change?), and secondly, that when I achieve my goal I will be happier. The trouble with this is, apart from trivial goals, this means that I have told myself that I will not be happy until the goal is achieved. So I have just set up a state of unhappiness that will last until the goal is achieved.

In broader terms what we are doing is getting caught up in relational thinking. That is the tendency to compare what we have right now with what others have. Very often it is what we perceive others to have that we adopt as our goals. We want to look like a film-star, we want to live in a house just like the big one on the top of the hill or by the water. We want to be as rich as the film star who lives in the house by the water…. Research suggests that such thinking is not motivational, but rather encourages us to focus on our current perceived shortcomings. Such thinking can destroy relationships. I have seen people unhappy because they saw a failure to a get an increase in share value as a huge loss. In fact they had lost nothing, but it was the perception of failing to achieve a financial goal, that caused poisonous recrimination between marriage partners. The people concerned were probably in the top 10% earning category, but they lived in a very wealthy area, so in relation to their neighbours they felt poor.

There is also the issue that goal-setting can distort or impair performance. Haste makes waste is an old adage, but how often do people make mistakes when under the pressure of meeting some goal? There is plenty of evidence around that goals can create anxiety which can impair performance. Just think about sports performance, where the longer term goal of winning the match can interfere with the immediate goal of hitting the ball accurately. For instance, Oliver Freedman in Australia and Richard Masters in the UK showed that you can impair golf putting performance by providing financial incentives.

Secondly, goals distort performance by focussing the individual’s performance on those goals with the result that other tasks might be neglected. In the short term this may not matter or even be desirable, but in the longer term, this may lead to undesirable and unexpected outcomes.

Now let’s think about the process of goal achievement. Most goals are met by incremental steps towards the desired state, such as saving money or dieting to a desired weight. As we get closer to our desired state, the gains can seem smaller and smaller (if we’ve lost 9kgs, then the extra 1kg to meet the goal of 10kg doesn’t seem such a big deal). In other words as we close in on our goals, we are continually in a process of adaptation and consequently we have already discounted the gains we have made. This can mean that when the goal is achieved it is accompanied by a sense of anti-climax. Tim Rice, the lyricist who wrote Evita, remarked that sometimes achieving our goals is worse than not achieving them. He was referring to that sense of anti-climax that often accompanies goal-achievement – that the goals do not deliver the level of happiness we expected.

Maybe it is time to introduce the concept of fuzzy goals, which are looser and bigger statements of a desired general direction. They are the opposite of the goal setters mantra of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based (SMART) goals. Such statements are not specific, not easily measurable, perhaps more aspirational than achievable, they may not even seem that realistic at times, and they are certainly not time-based. They give us wriggle room, room to be human and to appreciate where we are and what we have right now. Such statements give us a chance to avoid Joni Mitchell’s warning that “you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone”. Maybe such fuzzy goals are called purpose.

So setting a goal means accepting we are not happy at the moment, and we will stay unhappy until we achieve the goal, but when we achieve our goal, we will get a sense of anti-climax because we’ve already discounted our changed circumstances! So what do we do? We set yet more goals, and before we know it, we are goal addicted and condemned to thinking that happiness is some elusive future state. Not a recipe for success or happiness.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.