Goals are galvanizing. Invigorating. Goals create a sense of purpose and meaning.
As the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie once said, "If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes."
Science tends to agree. In a 2008 study published in Journal of Happiness Studies (proving there's a scholarly journal for just about everything) researchers split participants into two groups. One group did nothing. The other group was asked to set goals, and given tips on how to achieve those goals.
After three weeks, those goals group were judged to be 8 percent happier than when they started -- and were 12 percent happier than the group that didn't set goals. (While eight and twelve percent increases might not sound like a lot, who doesn't want to be a little happier?)
According to the researchers, "Goal setting and planning skills have a causal link to subjective well-being." Great!
Depends on the type of goal, though.
A 2007 study published in Social Indicators Research showed that social goals -- family, friends, political involvement, etc. -- improved happiness and overall life satisfaction. Yet the same study showed that material or career goals negatively impacted happiness and life satisfaction.
Same for a 2009 study published in Journal of Research in Personality: Achieving goals involving personal growth, relationships, and community involved led to increased feelings of well-being. Intrinsic goals make you happier in part because the pursuit of those goals tends to create virtuous cycles.
Work to be a better parent, for example, and you'll feel better about yourself. Your kids will feel better about themselves. Knowing they feel happier and more self-assured will make you feel even better about yourself -- and will make you work even harder to be a better parent.
On the flip side, achieving goals involving popularity, appearance, or material gain tends to to make you less happy. Not achieving those goals makes you feel even more unhappy.
Since we all have at least a few extrinsic goals, and we all want to be happier... yep: we're kind of stuck.
Unless you give an extrinsic goal personal, intrinsic meaning.
Say you want to earn more money so you can buy a fancier car; the research shows pursuing a material possession-related goal will make you less happy. But if you want to earn more money because you want to save money for your kids to go to college, or help your elderly parents, or to give back to your community... now you've given that same goal intrinsic meaning.
Now it means something.
Not to the people who will see your car. Not to the people you hope to impress.
To you -- and the people who matter to you.
Or say you want to get in better "beach shape." The research shows pursuing appearance-related goals will make you less happy.
But if you want to get in better shape because you want to feel better, or set an example for your kids, or prove something to yourself, then pursuing that goal is more likely to make you feel you happier.
Because now, you've given that goal intrinsic meaning. Now it means something to you, and to the people who matter to you.
Want to avoid the unhappiness trap that comes with pursuing extrinsic goals?
Add a little intrinsic motivation.
Then you get the best of both worlds.
And since your goals will have greater personal meaning, you'll be more likely to achieve them.