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The Route to Happiness

Set ambitious goals, says a study.

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California-Riverside professor Cecile K. Cho says, "The moral of the story is don’t sell yourself short."

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As if you needed another reason to aim high: Ambition makes you happier, says new research.
 
People who set themselves ambitious goals tend to be more satisfied than those with lower expectations, says a study published online in the Journal of Consumer Research. (It will appear in the December print edition.)

University of California-Riverside professor Cecile K. Cho conducted two experiments, one involving stock-picking and another involving puzzles, to compare people who set ambitious goals to those who set more conservative goals. She then measured the level of satisfaction with the achieved goals, and found those who set high goals for themselves were happier in the long run.

"The moral of the story is don’t sell yourself short," Cho said. "Aim high."
 
Heidi G. Halvorson Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (and who was not involved in the study) says the results are consistent with research on personal and professional goal-setting.

People set goals with two factors in mind: expectancy and value, she says. "Expectancy" refers to how likely you believe you are to succeed, and "value" refers to how good it will be for you if you do reach the goal.

"Safe bets, generally speaking, are less valuable ones," she says. "So once you've achieved the relatively easy goal, it's only natural to think about what it's cost you in terms of value—and that's going to reduce your satisfaction."
 
In Cho's first experiment, 134 participants were asked to set a target rate of return that they would be satisfied with and asked to pick from the range of six to 20 percent. Low goal setters were defined as those who set the rate at 14 percent or lower. High goal setters were those who set the rate at more than 14 percent.
 
Participants were then asked to allocate a $5,400 budget by picking three of 20 fictitious stocks. After 10 minutes, they received the return of their stock portfolio so it matched their goal. Participants were led to believe their stock allocation had been entered into a database to get actual returns. They were then asked how satisfied they were with the returns.
 
The puzzles experiment produced similar results.

What's the ideal goal to set? People who only think about the value of their goal and not the odds of actually being successful "aren't going to be any happier in the long run," advises Halvorson. "It's about stretching yourself and aiming high, while still hanging on to a bit of realism.  That's going to give you the most satisfaction, the most bang for your goal-setting buck.

Last updated: Aug 23, 2011

COURTNEY RUBIN

Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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