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Happy Rewards for Goal-Seekers

written by Nicholas Hall 6 February 2007

Nicholas Hall, MAPP '06, is the manager of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Behavioral Lab. He consults on worker satisfaction and engagement, and sits on the advisory board of Omnirisk Management Tools. His research work focuses on work satisfaction, character strengths, and positive psychology, and is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Articles by Nicholas are here.

OK. A lot has been written on goals and a lot of it at length. Rightfully so. Being a joiner, I decided this month to jump on to the bandwagon and participate in the goal-setting theme. However, I’ve decided to make my contribution succinct, for easy digestion.

Little Rewards for Little Goals

On our way to meeting larger goals, we set up for ourselves smaller goals, which are the steps to help us get to our large goal. These are sometimes called “process goals.” Very good.

We also know about the importance of rewarding ourselves when we’ve achieved our goals. We’ve all heard about this. Positive reinforcement – this is the place for it.

What about rewarding ourselves along the way to our large goal? Little rewards for our little goals? Yes. It’ll pave a path of pleasure to our larger goal. OK, I’m game.

Since these process goals are much smaller than our larger ultimate goal, these rewards should probably be smaller in kind. These process goals are also more numerous, so in order to reward ourselves (or suggest them to your clients) you will need many little rewards easily available. Let’s call these “process rewards.”

I think that it is a waste of time, and detracts from our enjoyment of our small achievements, to have to spend time and energy to think of little ways to reward ourselves for our process goals. For most of us, if we have to take this extra step, we’d skip it and not reward ourselves at all! That’s a shame. Better to pave a path of pleasure to our large goal.

Tabulating Little Rewards

Dancing as a Little Reward

Dancing as a Little Reward

So, I suggest, why not have a “go-to” sheet of small rewards for our process goals? These should be little things that we can do for ourselves at little to no cost. They should also be things that give us pleasure, or make us happy. A bit of happiness for our bit of success.

This came to mind for me while working with a client. When she achieved a process goal, she could never think of a small, meaningful reward for herself! When I would push her to come up with something, she would come up with uninspired rewards that did not give her a boost of happiness. She could only think of things with which to reward herself for her process goals when she had not yet completed one.

How can we ensure a small, quick dose of happiness for our success? According to Martin Seligman, there are three “pathways to happiness:” pleasure, engagement, and meaning. These are mediums through which we can cultivate a measure of happiness. (For more info, see the Silberman article from January 27th, as well as Seligman’s Authentic Happiness.)

From this, I created a small, simple, and powerful grid wherein we can list simple rewards that will matter to us. Along the x-axis, put pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Along the y-axis you can put any list of categories that are meaningful to you. I put body, mind, and spirit simply because they are broad categories of my life.

  Pleasure Engagement Meaning


* Bath
* Manicure/pedicure
* Massage
* Candy/sweets
* Play a sport
* Dancing
* Hike
* Yoga
* Weight lifting
* Tai Chi
Mind * Watch a funny or interesting movie
* Listen to a piece of music you like
* Read a good book
* Talk to a friend
* Learn something you’ve always wanted to
* Buy/borrow a book you’ve always been interested in
Spirit * Volunteer @ a soup kitchen or other volunteer place (elderly, children, disabled) * Meditate
* Pray
* Attend church
* Attend prayer group
* Make a gratitude visit


As time goes by, we fill in the boxes as we think of activities or rewards for ourselves that fall within the categories. When we achieve our process goals, we have the go-to sheet of process rewards that are bound to give us a jolt of happiness




Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books. (Added later) This book has a number of ideas for little pleasures.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

CD*NY Fall Fling 2008 courtesy of j_bary

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Jeff 7 February 2007 - 12:55 pm


Your piece ties in well with Sherri’s last one. Paraphrasing, she said the media makes mountains out of molehills and in the process overlooks the good stuff, PP for example, even derides the movement as Bumper Sticker Wisdom.

My point is this: why does everything have to be new and revolutionary to be worthwhile as Self-Help Advice? Isn’t it nice to have Grandma’s wisdom confirmed by science? Also, with studies backing you up, you can continue on your chosen path a little bit more confident that probably you’ll get some good results. So what if adding pleasure to your goal seeking seems commonsensical. If it works, Just Do It!

I found your writing refreshing and solidly useful. I’ll use this info, which I would have merely overlooked: reinforcement and pleasure indeed! I don’t need that stuff. Common sense says No Pain, No Gain! So thank you for the wake-up call.

Dave Shearon 8 February 2007 - 2:33 pm

Nick, little tools like your grid are wonderfully helpful to me. Thanks!

Editor S.M. 20 February 2007 - 12:23 pm

Master-Reality.ru website has reprinted this article in Russian.
Here it is:


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