Goals Are Stupid

February 1, 2012  

NOTE: This article is on the American Express OPEN Forum with the title “How to Make Goal-Setting Work for You.”  But the title I really wanted was “Goals Are Stupid.”  I’ll let you decide if they are or not.

We are a society obsessed with goals. Nearly everyone sets them. In fact, we just finished the most popular goal-setting day of the year: New Year’s Eve. This is when we establish our annual objectives, called resolutions.

Even though goal-setting is in vogue, is it good for us? Maybe, but not necessarily.

After studying goals for nearly 10 years, I have seen that for many, this ritual can lead to both failure and disappointment. Why? Goal-gurus often use words like “achievement,” “success” and “potential.” They position these concepts in a way that sounds appealing. “Get a better job.” “Make more money.” “Find the perfect partner.” Although our culture has placed a high value on success, money, status and fame, none of these are what we really want. I believe the ultimate goal for human beings is “happiness.”

So, what is it that makes people happy?

A few years ago, I commissioned a statistically valid study that uncovered some startling figures:

  • 58 percent of people admit to willingly sacrificing their happiness today in the belief that when they achieve their goals they will be happier. This means that over half of all goal-setters believe that happiness only exists in the future when they achieve their goals.
  • Sadly, according to the same study, 92 percent of people fail to achieve their annual goal—their New Year’s resolution. And it appears that this failure rate applies to all goal-setting.

But what about the 8 percent who achieved their goals? Clearly they must be happy with the results. But surprisingly, 41 percent of those who achieved their goals found that the accomplishment did little to improve their happiness. In fact, they were left disillusioned, dissatisfied and worse afterwards. Why? Many realized they inadvertently set the “wrong” goal. What’s the response? Set yet another goal, and allow the vicious cycle to continue.

If you do the math, this means that only about 5 percent of goal-setters both achieve their goals and are happy as a result. And many of those “successful” 5 percent become acclimated to the fruits of their labor and the happiness wears off. The more money you make, the more money you want. The bigger your house, the more space you desire. The more successes you obtain, the more success you want.

This acclimation perspective is supported by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, in an interview in the January/February 2012 Harvard Business Review. He says:

“A recent study showed that very few experiences affect us for more than three months. When good things happen, we celebrate for a while and then sober up. When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it.”

He contends that happiness is not linked to achievement. In fact, he provides striking examples of people who had experienced “horrible” circumstances yet were ultimately happier in the long run. Apparently, we are good at finding the “silver lining.” On a lighter note, he quotes Pete Best, the drummer in the Beatles who was replaced by Ringo Starr before the band became big. He is now a session drummer and said, “I am happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

Achievement does not necessarily drive happiness—nor does having “more” or “less.” To be clear, I am not advocating that people sit idly while eating bonbons and watching Jerry Springer. A life like this is neither juicy nor exciting and will most likely lead to hedonistic tendencies and a feeling of being lost. You still need to have something pulling you forward; something that gets you energized.

So here is what I am suggesting…

Read my four counterintuitive tips for goal-setting and the #1 fallacy of goal-setting on the American Express OPEN Forum

If you enjoyed this article, please press the “like” button on the American Express OPEN Forum website and spread the love.  Also, please leave comments there.

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  1. To achieve goals better question your beliefs | Transformational Leadership on January 23rd, 2013 4:57 am

    [...] you know that according to this study only 8% of people meet their New Years resolution goals?  Why the low success rate?  What I have [...]