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.
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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.
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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.