Would we be happier with no goals?

I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions. Partly because January strikes me as a particularly depressing month to try and lose weight/stop drinking/give up dairy etc. And partly because I’ve never been able to shake the back to school feeling of September, making autumn like the real new year to me, turning January into a bit of a fraud.

I suspect there’s also another reason though. Which is that I don’t really like putting myself under the pressure of achieving  – or more likely failing to achieve – a big daunting goal.

Now I’ve always believed, probably like you, that goals are supposed to be good for us. They spur us into action, push us to push ourselves, give focus to what we do today so that we can reach our ambitions tomorrow. And I’ve been taught, just as vehemently, that people without goals are destined (if Hollywood is anything to go by) to become aimless wasters. Living a life full of regret because they failed reached their full potential.

Except I wonder whether this is actually true.

Leo Babauta has a healthy debate on his ZenHabits blog with 4 Hour entrepreneur Tim Ferris, on whether or not goals suck. And I think there is some intuitive truth in the idea that successful people are not succeeding because they are planning ten steps ahead. They’re doing their utmost today, and they’ll keep doing that tomorrow. Cumulatively it all adds up. But an orchestrated long-term strategy is just a guise. As the old adage says that “man makes plans and God laughs”.

More insidiously though, I wonder whether this guise of goals actually gets in the way of our happiness. I’ve talked before about the idea that happiness is often measured as a combination of two things – how happy we are with our lives when we reflect on it (our remembering self) and how happy we are in the moment (our experiencing self).  Goals can piss off both selves.

Our remembering self will judge how happy we feel based on whether we have achieved the many goals we have set for ourselves. And it takes zero heed of whether those goals, our most heartfelt ambitions, were in the slightest bit realistic (see Jim’s video above for a razor sharp observation on this). The higher we aim, the more inevitable it is that at some stage, we will fall short. And rest assured, whatever achievements we do rack up, there will always be a new burning ambition to fill it’s place. We’re built with an insatiable appetite for more.

And worse, while we’re chasing after these goals, we lose track of the moment. Which means our contentment with right now, is always playing second fiddle to our pursuit of whatever prize we think lies in the future. And will the prize be worth it when we wake up at sixty and wonder at how readily we wished our days away to get to that point? Because life isn’t supposed to be a journey with a destination. We’re just supposed to dance while the music is playing.

So my Christmas gift to myself this year is to start out 2013 with even fewer goals than last year. I’m going to throw away the mental picture of what the next year might have in store, and just see where my aimless wandering can take me. Which is quite refreshing really.

Happy Christmas everyone – and think no further ahead for today!

  1. What and awesome video and a post!! He speaks the truth – that’s exactly the core of our problems… this was a morning revelation for me. Thank you!!!

    • Margaret
    • December 18th, 2012

    What a lovely post. We are always being told to make plans, to set more goals and to aim higher, but sadly we don’t seem to get any happier along the way. I am going to take your advice and set fewer goals and then everything I do achieve will be wonderful and unexpected.

    • Margaret
    • December 18th, 2012

    Reblogged this on Design Basics and commented:
    Life is not always about achieving more, sometimes it’s just about being happy with who you are and where you are now.

  2. I agree with your observation that September always feels like the new year, making January feel like a fraud! My sentiments exactly!

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