Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
A birthday is a special day for many of us. We all make wishes on our birthdays. Yet it seems that this is more of a ritual as most of us often forget our wishes and goals right away. Even if some of us have tried to achieve our goals, we might not have been able to resist the temptation of relinquishing our dreams on the way through. It has been said that fewer than 15 per cent of birthday wishes are realized: most are broken within two weeks. People could not stand the feeling of frustration when they fail to attain their goals or when they find their goals in conflict with reality. We may start wondering why our birthday wishes would make us so miserable. Aren’t they supposed to make us hopeful and anticipative of our future?
Step 1. What are your genuine wishes?
The “most-wanted” wishes for many people are becoming a millionaire, or even a billionaire. However, it is suggested by scholars that this would not bring us happiness. In a recent article in Psychological Science – “Zeroing in on the Dark Side of the American Dream” by Nickerson, Schwarz, Diener and Kahneman (2003) – it is found that people who rate financial success as the most important wish of their lives are generally unhappier than those who do not. This is particularly deleterious to satisfaction with family life. Other scholars even suggested associations between aspirations to financial success and depression, anxiety, and reduced self-esteem. According to humanistic psychologists (e.g., Maslow, 1970; Rogers, 1963), pursuing wishes or goals based on extrinsic rewards, contingent approval by other people, and “having” instead of “being,” distract the individual from the meaningful aspects of life, hinder the individual from achieving his or her inherent potential as a human being, and lead to psychological distress.
If aspiring to financial success does not make us happy, what kinds of wishes would do? According to Sheldon and his colleagues (2001), psychological needs are the key to enhance personal thriving. Topping the list of psychological needs that appear to bring happiness are autonomy (feeling that your activities are self-chosen and self-endorsed), competence (feeling that you are effective in your activities), relatedness (feeling a sense of closeness with others) and self-esteem. Thus we should pursue wishes that are related to development of self or relationships with others, and should be inherently meaningful to ourselves.
This is not to refute the importance of financial success. Yet more important is what lies beneath this aspiration to financial success – the pursuit of competence, autonomy, or merely a game with numbers? When we make wishes, have we considered our relationships with our families or friends? This determines whether your wishes are content and fulfilling.
Step 2. Well, I know my wish, what’s next?
Some people have their genuine aspirations identified, and yet feel gloomy and want to give up their aspirations. This might be because they do not set goals to get themselves closer to their wishes. Wishes and goals are not identical though they both orient us to our future. Goals are the steps we take in order to realize our wishes. They should be closely intertwined with one and other in order for us to be happy. We can’t set any concrete goals without wishes, and we can’t make our wishes come true without goals and plans.
If we have only beautiful goals and timetables but no wishes, we would easily fall into the trap of focusing so much on the steps and lose sight of our destination. We would have the risk of forgetting the reason to pursue the goals in the first place. The motivating power of goals comes from their connections to a bigger inspiring wish.
If we have only wishes without any goals to support them, we could easily feel overwhelmed by the enormity of our wishes and dreams. We need goals, both short-term and long-term. Short-term goals provide achievable intermediate targets that direct us toward our wishes. And, as Charles Noble said, “You must have long range goals to keep you from being frustrated by short range failures’’.
But some may ask, “I have set myself some goals, but why am I still a failure?”
Step 3. How to set a SMART goal then?
We cannot set our goals arbitrarily. For instance, we may refer to the concept of setting SMART goals in Industrial Organizational psychology and management. For goals to be SMART they should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.
- Specific – Setting “exact” goals
- Measurable – Using goals that can be measured
- Attainable – Can you actually get there?
- Realistic – Are you being honest with yourself?
- Timely – Seeking to set time frames for the various stages of your goal
With these SMART goals, it is more likely for us to take actions and proceed towards our wishes. (For more information about goal setting theory or SMART goal, please refer to the suggested reading below)
Step 4. Why bother with the process?
People suggest that while achieving our goals, we might be thinking most about whether we got what we expected to get. Yet I do not fully agree with this. Like David Watson has suggested, the process of goal pursuit, rather than the outcome, is the key to happiness and positive emotions. When we learn to enjoy the progression of attaining goals, every result we get could increment our feeling of joy, even if the progress is minimal. The pleasant sensation brought about by attaining a goal is momentary, whereas the process of attaining a goal allows us to realize the meaning of life. My argument is that only if we learn to appreciate the processes we went through in attaining goals, would we be able to achieve a flourishing life.
On my birthday today, I have reflected on my destination, planned the route, equipped my ship, and am ready to enjoy my journey. How about your ship? Don’t wait until your birthday – think about it now!
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Maslow, A.H. (1987). Motivation and Personality, 3rd Edition. Longman.
Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., Diener, E., & Kahneman, D. (2003). Zeroing in on dark side of the American dream. Psychological Science, 14, 531-536.
Rogers, C.R. (1963). The actualizing tendency in relation to “motives” and to consciousness. In M.R. Jones (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 11, (pp. 1–24). University of Nebraska Press.
Sheldon, K. M., Elliot, A. J., Kim, Y., & Kasser, T. (2001). What is satisfying about satisfying events? Testing 10 candidate psychological needs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 325-339.
Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. (2009). Creating your best life: The ultimate life list guide. New York: Sterling.