Obsession with goals

How Obsession With Goals Makes You Unhappy

I was told for my school days that I had to get good marks. Good marks meant a bright future, better options with higher education, a job that pays well and finally (drum roll please!) happiness.

This thinking permeates our grown-up existence. And it has to stop as it is a non-sustainable practice that affects everything we touch.

The formula goes like this:

Achieving Goals =  Happiness 

While it worked well for hunter-gatherers but is now outdated by sixteen thousand years or so. if you foraged the jungle or stepper finding food meant survival for you and your tribe members. This search for calories was interrupted by weather conditions, wild animals trying to eat you, and other tribes competing for the same patch.

We fixed most of these issues including sabre tooth tigers and plagues. The extent of challenges that are required to find provisions is putting pants on and walking to the shop. Or you can do it online with someone else putting their pants on and driving to your home. Nevertheless, we maintain the same conditional happiness habits as the prehistoric men dressed in fur coats.

This is why this formula does not work. If your happiness is conditional that means you are only happy when you achieve the goals. However, our brains rarely rest after hitting that target whether it’s a promotion, a new shiny toy or a trophy for being the fastest runner. 

Whenever you talk to a successful person they will always talk about their plans to build a new company, conquer another planet or whatever they think is the next hardest thing. The chase never stops.

There also be times when you are not able to achieve your goal for whatever reason. Not every lottery ticket is a winner. For instance, the vast majority of startups do not survive. That means that if the ultimate goal of a startup founder is to start generating revenue and become successful 90% of them will never be happy.

This thinking is not affecting not only our life satisfaction levels. We like new shiny things and often buying something equates to happiness too. Shrewd clothing companies caught up with this burning desire for new stuff. The fast fashion industry was named the third biggest polluter on the planet responsible for 10% of CO2 emissions and a third of microplastic contamination.

If you need other examples you do not have to go far to find them. The amount of articles on Medium on how to get to the first hundred subscribers is impressive. We measure our success in followers, likes and shares. When does happiness come? Is it at 1000 likes? 1 million? 

My and many other people’s experiences are that goal-based happiness is short-lived. It also reminds me of the infamous experiment with rats and red buttons stimulating dopamine release. The obsession with goals becomes the entire world until we fall into exhaustion. 

The better formula for happiness is 

Do what you enjoy = Happiness = Goals get done automagically

Professional athletes competing, talented artists creating their work, and experts in their field helping you are often sources of admiration. There is something magical about watching people immersed in the act of doing. 

The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (whose last name I could never spell without copy-paste) called this the flow state. This is not an elusive enlightenment that requires years of meditation but something that you have experienced in your life more than once. This is when the time slows down, the attention is focused on the task at hand and a feeling of unity with the act of doing.

Doing something you enjoy in the flow state leads to longer experiences of happiness with achievements attained naturally almost like a byproduct.

The flow state requires a certain level of skill enough to be able to do an activity. Using riding a bike as an example falling off and scratching your knees or losing balance will interrupt any resemblance of this state. Once you can peddle away for a couple of minutes the flow state can emerge. As you progressively become better little the flow will keep you motivated to continue.

True mastership will take time, patience and commitment. But more importantly, it needs an intrinsic positive motivation. I found it surprising that a lot of talented athletes like Andre Agassi hated the sport they were really good at. Fear of failure and chasing trophies are the two main drivers quoted as the reason behind the drive. I can’t imagine this to be a happy life.

Doing something that you love does not mean monumental heroic acts that fulfil the purpose. It is just something that you personally truly enjoy. It is a special key that opens up your unique lock. 

I was having a conversation with someone about how much I enjoy my current job. No day is ever the same, with a lot of different projects, people and technology. My workmate responded that I was lucky because not everyone is in the same boat.

Some people thrive on the predictability of daily cadence and knowing the exact tasks they will be working on. For some, dealing with new challenges that may be thrown their way is the opposite of happiness. It is stress and chaos.

So should we abandon the goals in favour of just doing things? I will give you an ambiguous lawyer answer – it depends. Goals really are an indicator or a form of measurement of how we are progressing. You can set goals to guide you along the way.

Using a car analogy driving to a new office location without a navigator you will probably end up stuck in a middle of a cornfield. However, if you are on a Sunday afternoon adventure enjoying a drive around the experience itself is a goal.

These are three tips on how to shift away from chasing goals to enjoying the act of doing.

Figure out what you love. 

This may sound like an easy task but believe me, this can take a lifetime. Some people knew what they wanted to do with their life from the early days. Jocko Willink always wanted to become a SEAL. A NASA astronaut Terry Virts who I had the privilege to meet knew he wanted to fly to space when he was a boy.

Some of us aren’t so lucky with knowing or did not pursue natural talents. I had an idea that I enjoyed writing back in my school days. With that said, I never had the patience to sit down and write unless it was a school assignment (remember good marks equal happiness). It took time to finally realise that I enjoy expressing my thoughts through writing.

If you are curious about your special thing it is probably hidden in plain sight. Ask your friends and relatives as outside observers often know us better. Another option is to take a personality test that seems to make sense to you. My old-time favourite is Enneagram but recently I was introduced to Clifton Strenghts profile that is worth exploring.

Find an opportunity to practice what you love.

We spend a good part of our lives working. It only makes sense to find something we enjoy doing in our daily jobs. People often make a mistake looking for a particular job title or industry.

My experience is that you can find a task to apply your talents in any role. Reading the job description is a better way to see those opportunities. Whether it’s connecting with new people, problem-solving or developing your writing skills the answers are in the finer detail.

Stay the course.

Sometimes we want to give up. Well, let’s be honest it feels like every day offers a chance to give up on something. This morning I went for a run and caught my thoughts building a case for turning back. “You will be late for the haircut”, “You didn’t recover from the last run”, “You could just ride a bike while watching Youtube instead” My mind turns into a legitimate excuse generator at that point. 

The brain wants to preserve your energy for a bigger battle. The problem is that battle never comes. Never comes the enjoyment of doing something with our lives. Keep moving your feet just one more step at a time.

There also may be an occasional temptation to cheat the system. While you will achieve your “goal” you yourself know that it was not an honest win. In some cases giving everything you have and not winning is better than cheating the system with the gold trophy in your hands.

I hope you enjoy this writing. Until next time stay kind and curious.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top