Are You Dreaming Too Big?

Lifelong, hard-to-achieve goals might not make you happier. Small steps will.

A person rides in a small purple ship with a smiley face on the sail.
Jan Buchczik

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.


Commencement season is just around the corner. Whether in person or over a live-stream, graduates and their families will follow the long-honored tradition of listening to speeches studded with unoriginal chestnuts like following your dreams, shooting for the stars, and believing that you can do whatever you set out to do.

But that message doesn’t seem appropriate at this moment. Our greatest ambitions, personal and professional, have been systematically frustrated by the pandemic, as the weeks have turned to months have turned to more than a year. Perhaps the words of the English satirical poet Alexander Pope are a better fit. In 1727, he gave his friend John Gay a piece of advice, in the form of a ninth beatitude: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Whether Pope was serious or not, there is some good sense in his counsel for times both normal and pandemic-stricken. Sure, audacious goals can be energizing. But a fixation on them can lead to big disappointments. Worse, when your eyes are constantly on the horizon, you can miss what is right in front of you. For happiness, we need a better approach to setting goals—one that sets us up for success in life and lets us enjoy the here and now.

For the most part, goal setting seems to raise our well-being modestly in the short run, by increasing our optimism and sense of direction. In a 2008 study, for example, researchers ran an experiment in which half of the participants set out goals for their lives and received training to bring them to fruition. The other half did not. After the three-week training, the researchers observed that the goal-setters were 8 percent happier than they had been before they started, and 12 percent happier than the control group.

That study mixed all sorts of aspirations together. But if you look closer, not all goals are associated with equal happiness. A 2008 analysis of German survey data, for example, showed that while goals involving family, friends, and social and political involvement promoted life satisfaction, goals focused on career success and material gains were detrimental. This is consistent with research on American college graduates: Aspirations for personal growth, close relationships, and community involvement (what most psychologists call “intrinsic goals”) lead to increased well-being when those goals are attained; those for material possessions, fame, and attractiveness (“extrinsic goals”) predict ill-being.

The magnitude of a dream matters, too. Setting short-term, realistic goals has been shown to start a reinforcing mechanism of success and happiness, provided these goals fit with our values and aren’t imposed on us by others. For example, in one 2001 study, college students who set academic performance goals for the year that matched their intrinsic motivations were more successful than those who didn’t, leading to higher well-being and confidence. This set them up for more goal setting, more success and happiness, and so on.

Focusing on long-term, difficult-to-achieve goals, in contrast, is risky, because you’re less likely to accomplish them. Disappointment creates pessimism and can provoke depressive symptoms. Therefore, goal setting—especially for audacious goals that are unlikely to be met, or even ordinary goals during times like the present—might lead to a lot more unhappiness than happiness. As the poet John Greenleaf Whittier so poignantly put it, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

This is a growing peril in our economy, which is becoming more and more characterized by what my former economics professor Robert Frank calls “winner-take-all markets,” also known as “superstar markets.” In winner-take-all markets, a few people get outsize rewards, and the rest are left by the wayside. Rarified zones such as Hollywood and the NBA are classic examples. But in the era of new media, people can be celebrities in more ordinary professions, such as law or academia. One can even become rich and famous—at least temporarily—as a YouTuber, which 29 percent of American 8-to-12-year-olds now say is their career goal. The paradox of superstar markets is that their very impenetrability makes them attractive, drawing in more and more aspirants, the vast majority of whom will be disappointed.

Fortunately, we don’t have to swear off goal setting in order to protect and increase our happiness. On the contrary, a balanced strategy based on three lessons from the research can give us the benefits while mostly avoiding the costs.

1. Live in “day-tight compartments.”

The scientific literature is clear that goals can bring a lot of happiness when they are short term, achievable, and leading us toward ultimate success—in other words, when achieving them indicates that we are making progress. The self-improvement guru Tony Robbins has taught that progress toward a goal can even bring more happiness than its actual attainment, an idea that is supported by research. To build a happiness strategy around this principle, you should set an end goal, then break it into manageable steps: one year, one month, one week, one day.

The one-day goals are especially important. In his 1948 self-improvement classic, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie recommended that readers resolve to live in “day-tight compartments.” Take stock of long-term goals regularly, but not too often (for me, every six months does the trick); focus the rest of the time on what is to be done today that creates positive progress. Finish your work, set it aside, and relish the accomplishment. Then, start again tomorrow.

2. Focus on the journey.

The prospect of committing to a lifelong aspiration might unnerve you, since it’s the type that’s least likely to pan out. But long-term goals can be audacious and bold without inviting disappointment if they go unfulfilled. The secret is in a formula articulated by the writer Deepak Chopra: intention without attachment.

Being overly attached to anything in life invites suffering. The solution is to see major goals not as the only way to achieve happiness but as points of navigation that set a direction for your lifelong journey. That way, when storms arise and new opportunities present themselves, you can set a new goal and gracefully let go of your old one, thereby avoiding disappointment and missed opportunities.

When setting out your long-term goals, try writing them down followed by these words: or something better. This gives you explicit permission to diverge from these goals as life circumstances dictate—which you can and should do without disappointment if the original goals are no longer appropriate.

3. Set intrinsic goals.

Extrinsic goals—the worldly aspirations leading to money, power, and prestige—can be the hardest to achieve because they are inherently zero-sum: In the pursuit of scarce resources, we crowd one another out. By contrast, intrinsic goals—based on love and personal growth—are positive-sum, and thus more likely to lead to success: My efforts to love and grow as a person are not crowded by your efforts; on the contrary, they can be complementary. Furthermore, they are the goals most associated with happiness. As such, a proper bucket list should be heavily weighted toward these intrinsic aspirations.

Make a list of specific intrinsic goals and work to achieve them. If you need help coming up with some, remember that intrinsic goals are akin to what the writer David Brooks calls “eulogy virtues”: the things you would want people to remember you for at the end of your life. As in, “loving mother,” not “5-million-mile flier on United.” You might resolve to develop your spirituality this summer through 30 minutes a day of reading and practice, to make a new personal friend (one you see outside work) before the end of the year, or to call your mother twice a week starting today.

For happiness, even during the pandemic, neither follow-your-dreams cheerleading nor Pope’s passive shrug is the best approach. A better commencement speech might advise the following:

Dream of the person you want to be—not of how rich or powerful or famous that future self is, but about the life you will lead and work you will do to serve and enrich others maximally, leaving behind a world that is better than you found it. Then, consider what it will take for you to get there, and the happiness you will gain from the joyful journey of creating value and loving others with abundance. Finally, focus your attention on what you will do this day in your work, spiritual life, and relationships that keeps you on that path. Oh—and your diplomas will arrive in the mail in four to six weeks.