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Goals: Why We Need Them

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

I have been struggling to determine why I am obsessed with goal-setting and achievement and how our Dark Horses can cause us to deviate from our goals. Why not just let things be – let life take us at its will?

After much reflection, coupled with reviewing some of my old notes, I’ve come up with a list of reasons to justify my obsession. Here we go…

Research suggests that when individuals are asked what makes a happy and fulfilling life, they spontaneously list life goals they have achieved and dreams and goals for the future. There is clearly something intrinsically important in this process of creating goals and working toward them.

Borrowing from existentialism, humans differ from other living things (i.e., cow, fern) and objects (i.e., table). For objects and non-human living things, essence precedes existence. In other words, the essence of a persimmon tree is defined in its seed. Every seed carries the potential for a fruit-bearing tree, but that is all a persimmon tree will do in its entire life course…produce persimmons. Persimmon trees don’t even get to choose the kind of persimmons they will bear; there is no way to say “I want to bear persimmons with a hint of honey taste.” Its essence is codified in its DNA and is unchangeable.

We humans, on the other hand, although preprogrammed genetically, define our essence. We first exist and throughout a lifetime, build and develop our essence (existence precedes essence). We have the option, the choice, the liberty to BECOME…we can become whatever we want to be. We can become recluses, yogis, doctors, astronauts, the list is endless, and the more we evolve, new essences are being created.

To become, to actualize our essence, we must set and reach goals.

The Human Condition

Borrowing from dialectics, this amazing liberty of defining our essence also creates major unintended consequences. Dialectics suggests that for everything that is created, its opposite is also created. By creating the plane, we also created the place crash. By having the liberty to choose, we must deal with the agony of choice. We experience midlife crises; we agonize about the future, about what we have become, about what we will become.

This tension is released through goal-setting and achievement.

We humans are, by nature, needy beings. We have needs that must be satisfied, from base needs like food and shelter, to higher needs such as love and self-actualization. As we evolved and left our natural state where our needs could be satisfied by gathering and hunting, our needs became increasingly more complex and difficult to attain. These needs, more than ever, are fulfilled through the pursuit of self-imposed goals.

We are also unsatisfied beings. We have ideal, desired states, or visions, that sit in juxtaposition from our current condition. The tension between current and desired states is, according to Peter Senge, a renowned systems thinker, a major source of creative energy. Think of a rubber band stretched between two fingers. One finger represents your current state and the other your vision. To diminish the tension in the band, you can lower your vision (not ideal, but in some cases justified) or move your current state closer to your vision. Visions don’t materialize on their own; they require that we set proximal goals and take action to move toward them.

Goal-setting and its subsequent action is the path to virtue and human flourishing. Aristotle defined human flourishing (happiness) as an activity of the soul in accordance with rationality and virtue. Flourishing is the process of fulfilling one’s full potential.

We all have latent potentialities that make us uniquely human and uniquely us. Some of the characteristics that makes us uniquely human include:

· rational thinking

· creativity

· relating to each other in profound ways (e.g., we are social animals)

· envisioning the future and taking steps toward affecting it

On an individual basis, we have our own gifts, talents, personal characteristics that make us uniquely us. Flourishing is about realizing these potentialities. We do that through goal-setting and goal achievement. Aristotle reminds us that Olympic medals are given not to those with the best body shape or muscles, but to those who enter the competition and win.

Aristotle also emphasized that we become virtuous through virtuous acts, not through virtuous thought or desires. You become just, courageous, temperate by acting with justice, courage, temperance, etc. Thus, becoming virtuous is about establishing ideal states and taking daily action to fulfill them.

Controlling Chaos

Oh, yes, let’s not forget about the power of habit, as we are what we consistently do. We become our habits. The process of becoming our habits involves establishing goals and sticking to them until the action is downloaded into our basal ganglia and becomes automatic.

Goals are an antidote to chaos. Chaos is pervasive in the human condition – we have to manage both internal chaos (thoughts, impulses, desires) and external chaos (environmental demands, distractions, life occurrences). Goals are antidotes to chaos to the degree that they translate mental states into action sequences. Goals reduce the complexity of our reality by guiding attention and behavior. Research tells us that we spend a significant part of our lives thinking about and strategizing about goals. Goals bring order and structure to our lives.

Misguided goals bring disorder and havoc, which can often be translated into anxiety and depression. Goals are a representation of our internal processes (our self) and our internal hierarchy of priorities and view of life. They fulfill our need for coherence. The more we strive for and achieve goals that are aligned with our inner values, the more cohesiveness we feel with our inner hierarchies of values. This in turn begets good feelings about ourselves and motivation for reaching future goals

Goal achievement gives us a sense of mastery and increases our sense of control over a chaotic environment. As our sense of control increases, confidence in our ability to reach further goals also increases. This sense of self-efficacy – the belief we can achieve future goals –impacts all aspects of life, from school grades to career goals to our health or lack thereof. As your sense of competence to master the challenges of life increases, so does your well-being. Self-efficacy increases our potentiality!

Igniting action and being in control reduces morbidity and mortality. Studies on patients with chronic diseases also suggest that progress toward goal achievement attenuated pain and increased a sense of well-being.

The Psychology of Goal-Setting and Achievement

Goals give us direction, purpose, and meaning. Humans have searched for the meaning of life for millennia, and some are still waiting for the ultimate revelation. Research on goal achievement suggests that you need to look no further – as we pursue and achieve goals, meaning emerges. In other words, meaning is created through action and is not a hidden secret to be uncovered.

The development of goals that produce a sense of purpose in life is the basis of various therapeutic interventions. Having goals that are within or slightly above our capacity and resources increase well-being, while holding on to goals that are well beyond our resources and capacities (i.e., skills and competencies) can be a major source of despair. Calibration and being realistic about goals are essential components of subjective well-being.

Psychology posits that positive functioning depends upon self-acceptance, positive relations, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and autonomy. All of these factors, with the exception of self-acceptance, involve goal-setting and attainment. One could argue that achieving the goals related to growth, purpose, autonomy, and mastery increase self-acceptance.

In a future post, I will discuss why protecting goal achievement has become more important than ever. I will also argue that there is something more important than just having goals. For now, choose your reason for setting goals….

Happy Achieving!


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