Why Goals Don’t Make You Happy



Reading time: 6 minutes 1 second

I am addicted to Apple products. Whenever they have a new gizmo, I want it. I don’t know what it is about them but I’ve become programmed to want whatever they have to offer. If they were to sell actual apples for a couple of hundred bucks I’d probably tell them to take my money.

Apple has brainwashed me into falling in love with their brand. And I’m not alone. They’ve mastered the art of designing products that implicitly promise us happiness and it lasts a couple of days until we take it for granted alongside all the other Mac gadgets we have.

Promises of Happiness

Every day, you are bombarded with hundreds of ads promising you the answer to your prayers. Marketing and advertising is a multi-billion-dollar industry that leverages psychology to get us to make decisions.

Ultimately, the promise of most ads is either to solve a problem we have or to give us something that we want. Sometimes, the ad will have to convince us that we want it. And sometimes, it will reveal to us a problem that we never knew we had. But their focus is on getting us to take action.

Click this. Buy this. Enter your credit card details here. Subscribe. Join. Say yes. This is how business works. And anyone who sells anything needs to do this.

We know the best practices. Create desire, urgency, and need. Get people to see how what you have to offer can help them.

With service-based businesses, most of the time we are fixing problems. We are offering our expertise to help them with a challenge they have in life or business.

With product-based businesses, while many do solve problems, often they will focus on giving you what you want. Buy this bag, laptop, car, necklace, watch, perfume, or shoes and you will get what you want. Indeed, often the hidden promise is that you will ‘be who you want to be’.

This reveals something critically important about our psychology in the modern age and connects specifically to the obsession we have for goal setting in the motivational speaking world. We are led to believe that if only we set goals and achieve those goals we will be happy. And that’s problematic. Because it doesn’t really work that way.

The Marketing of Goal Setting

The motivational speaking world is chock-full of everyone promising the perfect goal-setting technique. SMART goals, SMARTER goals, OKRs, Well-Formed outcomes, you name it.

And these techniques are all excellent. They’re all useful. I even have what I call the ‘LEAD your Life Design’ process which separates goals into lifestyle, experience, achievement, and development goals. It’s cool and really helpful but here’s the thing:

Setting goals is an important key to being successful but not nearly as much to do with you becoming happy as you might think.

Author Mark Manson describes the constant need to achieve, achieve, achieve as one of the critical things that undermines our ability to be happy. The mere fact that we are trying to be happy draws our attention to the fact that we aren’t happy in the first place.

The Happiness of Pursuit

Setting a goal does something similar. We say if only I achieve this… then I’ll be happy. The truth is though that it’s not so much having the goal that makes the difference. It’s not even just the pursuit of happiness that makes us feel good. As Robert Sapolsky says,

It’s the ‘Happiness of Pursuit’.

So it’s not so much that whatever we aim for will make us happy but the fact that we want it and are trying to get it is really what makes us happy.

And it makes sense neurologically. Your brain releases more and more dopamine as your motivation increases. When you want something and you are actively going after it, it’s a rush. We love to feel that excitement and the drive to move closer to it.

Then, at the top of the mountain, we feel the rush. The elation. The delight. But how long does it last? Rarely does it stay with us for more than a few days regardless of the achievement.

Instead, very quickly our brain resets and moves us to the next thing to pursue.


More, More, More

From an evolutionary perspective, this works for us. When you finally find food as a hunter-gatherer, the worst thing you can do is just sit back and stay satisfied for days. Because you will be hungry again and you will need more food. Life is but an endless series of adventures to find more, more, more.

And it’s not just that we want more, we want better. The human brain strives not only for ‘new’ but realizes that we can always have a better experience.

Each time we get what we want now we have a new default point. You have the chocolate bar for a snack one day and then the following day, pretty soon the chocolate bar no longer makes your day better but if you don’t have it, it makes your day worse.

How to Think about Goals and Happiness

So what is the answer?

If achieving goals doesn’t make us happy, how should we think about goals?

What should we do to be happy?

In a past edition of Inner Propaganda, I discussed the various factors that influence happiness and how we are extremely bad at predicting what will make us feel happy and sad. I also outline what the evidence suggests makes you happy.

Here let’s explore how we need to think about goals in the context of happiness:

1. Use a goal-setting technique to decide what you want to achieve in your life and business.

2. Separate them into two primary types of goals:

  • Goals with an end and definable measure. (Achievement goals)
  • Goals of a new consistent habit that you want to engage in. (Habit goals)

Next, ask yourself the following questions for the achievement goals:

1. How happy will I be in the pursuit of this goal?

2. How will achieving this goal improve my life?

3. Why is achieving this goal worth it for me or others?

4. What will I want to achieve after this goal is achieved?

For the habit goals ask these questions:

1. How will doing this consistently impact my happiness levels directly or indirectly?

2. How will doing this consistently make me happier with who I am?

3. How will doing this consistently improve my relationships?

What you are doing with these questions is identifying the real impact that your goals will have as opposed to falling into the trap of assuming that once you achieve this you will be ‘happy’.

While I no doubt will continue to buy Apple products, I have been consciously looking at the purchases I make through a new lens. Instead of automatically believing that this new product will be the very thing that finally makes me happy, I am asking a different question:

What is the real impact of this product?

The Happiness of the Challenge

Marketing and advertising only work because we connect with it and market the product or service to ourselves. Motivational seminars work because we believe everything will be perfect if only we take this course. If only we buy this book. If only we do this one practice. We sell the idea to ourselves.

But life doesn’t work like that. Instead, life is a series of problems. It’s a series of setbacks. It’s a series of small achievements. It’s the climbing of a never-ending mountain but along the way, we get a chance to look at how far we have come and realize that the real pleasure is in the pursuit of the prize, not the prize itself.

When we set goals we need to recognize it is in the process of setting ourselves challenges that excite us that happiness is hiding in plain sight. We need to understand that the challenges and problems of life are a big part of why life is so meaningful. Happiness is not necessary for every moment of every day.

Instead, we are often at our happiest when we are working towards what we desire. And, in those moments, when we stop and watch the world go by and recognize that we don’t need the goals to be happy. We just need to appreciate the many reasons why it can be incredible to be alive.

I hope you found this interesting – feel free to share it with your friends and network.



P.S. ‘How to Develop Executive Presence‘ is the most recent video on my YouTube channel. You can watch it here.




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