Finding Meaning in Goal-Setting

finding meaning in goal setting

If you go back a few months, you know that I’ve been talking about the B part of the ABCs of happiness—Becoming. I’ve shared a number of strategies for becoming that include spending time in nature, getting exercise and building fun and recreation into your life. We’ve looked at quieting yourself through different practices of breathing, mindfulness, savoring and meditation. And in my last post, I talked about finding meaning by defining your purpose. People who have a sense of purpose are much happier than those who are living from duty or simply going through the motions of life. So, one more post in this series on becoming. Now I want to talk about finding meaning through goal-setting.

Let me say at the outset that this strategy is more complex than the other strategies on becoming. Frankly, there is not much research that suggests a relationship between setting goals and happiness. And yet it is intuitive… and complicated. I have found a lot of meaning and fulfillment in my life because of some big goals I’ve accomplished – getting my Ph.D., building a business, writing a book, raising children, and so on. I sacrificed to reach these goals, perhaps even short-term pleasure and yet I feel a sense of pride in my accomplishments. They bring me fulfillment and meaning.

Goals Bring Stress

But we have to be careful because setting and going after goals can create stress. As we become really serious about goal-setting, we can become like type-A personalities in which our goals become so important that we trade-away other sources of happiness—such as taking time to savor little experiences, expressing gratitude, or spending time with family and friends.

What this means is that achieving goals can bring great meaning and satisfaction but, being overly fixated on goals can create stress and pressure that potentially rob us of happiness. It consumes time that could go into other endeavors including pleasurable activities. And our goals easily set us up to step onto the scarcity treadmill by believing that we can only feel good about ourselves when we accomplish a goal. We then believe that we have to continually do and be more, better, and different in order to be happy.

Bringing Perspective to Setting Goals

So, let’s not give up on goals but let’s be aware of managing ourselves during the process of accomplishing those goals. Part of this is knowing that we can find ways to be happy during the journey and not just at the end. Part of it is knowing that we can be happy whether we accomplish a goal or not. And part of it is knowing that as important as the goal, perhaps more important, is who we are becoming in the process.

After all of these qualifications, let me say that accomplishing goals not only helps you improve in an area of life or make a contribution to society but also gives you a sense of mastery and control. It enables you to realize that you’re not a passive heir of whatever life dishes up but are an agent of change who influences and affects the course of your life. Having a personal goal, freely chosen, is motivating and invigorating. It is a way to bring a renewed sense of excitement and meaning to your life. So why not find meaning in our goal-setting process?

Your Best Possible Future Self

I’ve talked, in the past, about Laura King, a professor at the U of Missouri who studies optimism. In one of her research projects, she invited people into her lab for four consecutive days to write about their best possible future self. They are, in effect, creating a vision for themselves and the exercise gave them a big boost in happiness.

Setting goals is similar. It often begins with creating a vision and then making that vision real by converting it into specific and actionable goals. I encourage people to create a vision by dreaming and asking themselves questions like, “What do I want?” and jotting down answers. Or “What is really important to me?” or “Where do I want to be in five or ten years?” and then ponder and imagine that future. It is important to dream. Our dreams excite and motivate us to take action we otherwise wouldn’t take. And then goals are the concrete actions to make those dreams a reality.

So give yourself permission to think about what you want. Do the Laura King exercise of writing your ideal future vision. And from that, identify some goals.

Make Sure Your Goals are Freely Chosen

You will find meaning in goal-setting if your goals come from your heart. They need to be freely chosen and not shoulds or oughts from someone else. Make sure they align to your deepest needs, purpose and values. Make sure they move you towards a future you want and not simply avoid something you don’t want. Set goals that motivate and challenge you but are also achievable.

Your goals can be long term (growing a business), short-term (losing so much weight in the next 6 months) or day to day (planning a neighborhood get-together).

Your goals can be like a bucket list—what you’d like to do before you die. You may have a few goals or many. They may be written or just something you carry in your head. The bigger or more complex, the more sense it makes to put your goals in writing and create specific and detailed plans. You decide what will work for you.

So is there a goal you’ve had in the back of your mind but put off for one reason or another? Why wait? Is there a way you can make it happen now? It doesn’t have to be big and earth-shattering, just something that is meaningful to you.

A Simple But Empowering Goal

I remember someone I worked with a few years back. We talked to her about giving herself permission to clarify her wants instead of always being so duty-driven. And I’ll not forget her excitement the next time I saw her. One of her goals was to enter a 10K. She not only entered but she came in second place among the women. She was ecstatic as she shared this with me. Although not a huge dream, it was the first time she’d given herself permission to think about her wants and go after something important to her. It was a turning point in her belief in herself and recognition that she could take command of her life by setting and going after goals.

Find Meaning by Making Your Goals Part of Becoming

As I conclude this article, I hope that you can use your goals to not only evaluate, measure and judge your performance but also enjoy the journey towards the accomplishment of your goals. Accomplishing goals can be a great source of happiness and well-being when framed in the perspective of being and becoming, and not just a series of unending performances.




  1. Jim Arbuckle

    I liked your article, especially the part about setting a goal that will change you.

    In our efforts over the years to encourage young men to get their Eagle Scout award, we would tell them it wasn’t really about checking the box

    It wasn’t about earning the award; it was about learning the award, and the person they become in the process

    • Roger Allen

      Thanks for your comment, Jim. I love that you taught your scouts that it was so much more than checking the box but about who they were becoming in the process. In my mind, that’s a more mature understanding of scouting that had to influence their life view, not just scouting.


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