Why your goals are making you unhappy and how to change your approach

Setting goals is an important part of the planning process. However, I’ve learned that goals can be somewhat like a poisoned chalice; helpful and valuable at first, but also a source of angst and unhappiness.

Throughout my life, I’ve been an incredibly goal-oriented person and especially so in the gym. And without doubt, setting physique goals has been instrumental in my progress, dragging me forward when motivation inevitably wanes.

Over time, I’ve also learned to how to refine my goals by making them increasingly specific and aligning them to my core values.

Make SMART-ER goals

By aligning goals to our values, we can tap into the emotional aspect of goal setting.

For example, setting a target weight or body fat percentage is a very specific goal. But it does little to tap into emotion. So instead of setting a numerical goal that reads simply ‘Achieve 8% body fat’, we can transform it into a goal rooted in emotion by saying ‘When I take my shirt off at the beach this summer, I want to make jaws drop by being single digit body fat with shrink-wrapped abs.’

I’ve mentioned this before, but Tom Venuto wrote a great article on goal setting, adding two additional dimensions to the traditional S.M.A.R.T. model: Emotion and Repetition. Working emotion into my own goal-setting has been incredibly helpful in establishing goals that feel like success.

“Goals give you a direction, but strong emotions are part of the propulsion system that drives you in that direction. Build up a burning desire by focusing on the emotional reasons why you want to achieve your goal. Connect your goals to your values. What’s most important to you about reaching your goal? If you reach 9% body fat, or whatever is your target, what will that do for you? What will your life look like then? How will it make you FEEL?”
― Tom Venuto

But (isn’t there always one?) my propensity for goal setting has also routinely contributed to me being unhappy and depressed. Why?

Because happiness is always just the other side of the next goal.

And worse still, as an upcoming goal falls within our reach, we’ve already moved on in our minds, conceiving the next goal and putting it out there. Just two more months, two more percent or two more pounds until happiness.

I could tell you that this thinking is fundamentally flawed.

That happiness is found in the journey. The joy of doing. Through being present.

And it truly is.

But ever since the Enlightenment era of the 18th century, humans have increasingly been progress-oriented, associating success and happiness with the notion advancement and outcomes.

So how do we tap into that concept? How do we approach setting our goals without pushing happiness perpetually out of reach?

Acknowledge your many successes

Here’s a couple of things I’ve been doing of late that’s worked well for me.

  1. Revel in your success
    When you achieve your goal, no matter how small or seemingly trivial, make time to revel in your success. Think back to when you set the goal, how you wanted to feel when you achieved it. What it would do for you. Bathe in those thoughts for while. Soak it up until your brain wrinkles!
  2. Set many, smaller goals
    By setting many small goals, you get to enjoy the rewarding and positive feelings associated with achieving your goals more frequently. It also feeds our need for progression and advancement. Second, if you end-up struggling with my advice to revel in your successes, at least happiness isn’t being pushed quite so far away. This presents you with many more chances to re-calibrate your goal-setting approach.

So if you’re an avid goal-setter that’s struggling to find happiness in achieving your goals, give this approach a try.

The worst that can happen is you’ll experience frequent bouts of deep happiness as you revel in the crushing of your goals.

Sounds like a win to me!

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