- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Why Goal-Setting Can Leave You Miserable

There are really only two reasons to set a goal: instrumental reasons and experiential reasons.

When you set a goal for instrumental reasons, it is because the object of the goal will improve your happiness, lifestyle or contribute to some larger purpose.

For example, if you’re incredibly overweight, changing your lifestyle may add several years to your life. And if you see living as a good thing, as I do, that gives pretty strong instrumental reasons to set the goal.

The alternative is to set a goal for experiential reasons. This is where the process of setting and striving towards a goal will improve your happiness, lifestyle or contribute to some larger purpose.

For example, if you’re already in decent shape, increasing your benchpress won’t significantly change your happiness. However, you may enjoy the training, having the additional challenge makes life more exciting and the determination may make you a better person. Benchpressing 200lbs has few instrumental reasons for setting the goal, but may have strong experiential reasons.

Don’t Confuse Instrumental with Experiential Reasons!

Few goals are divided neatly like the examples above. Some you’ll pursue for a mix of experiential and instrumental reasons.

Take this business I’m building, for example. For instrumental reasons I have the possibility to work full-time for myself, not needing a job, which if my past experiences are to be trusted, would increase my happiness.

However, it also has strong experiential reasons. I enjoy running this business, and it constantly challenges me and forces me to improve myself. Even if I never reached my ultimate goal of a full-time income, the experience itself would have given many benefits, both in the moment and for the future.

The temptation in cases like this is to assume the two reasons are the same. After all, we don’t chase goals saying that we’re pursuing it for 30% instrumental reasons and 70% for experiential reasons. We simply feel the motivation to chase. Where that motivation comes from is often disguised.

The danger, is that by confounding the two reasons, you may make yourself miserable. Instead of reaping the benefits of instrumental goals, or even the process of experiential ones, you get neither.

Most Seemingly Instrumental Goals Aren’t

In a recent TEDTalk [1], Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, explains that money does not buy happiness:

We looked at how feelings vary with income, and it turns out that, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans, … people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get.

Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I’ve rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness.

So, unless you’re in poverty, or your income goal is necessary in some other goal (like switching to a business full-time), most income goals are not instrumental.

I found it interesting, after reading Neil Strauss’s cult-hit, The Game [2], that many of the people he documented became no happier after learning to pick up women. In fact, many of them became disillusioned and depressed.

Kahneman’s talk also made me wonder how many people want to travel obsessively because they enjoy it, or because the ability to travel obsessively has become a luxury status-symbol, like a Rolex or a Lexus?

Do we deceive ourselves into claiming to pursue goals for instrumental reasons (like money or sex) when their realization doesn’t improve our life? Do we deceive ourselves equally when pursuing goals for experiential reasons (like travel) which may have deeper instrumental motivations we wouldn’t want to accept [3]?

Untangling the Web of Wants

Naive goal-setting tells people to go after what they want. And 80% of the time, I think this is good advice. Goal-setting often has both experiential and instrumental benefits. Achieving goals often improves your life, and even when it doesn’t, the mere act of striving towards goals will usually make you a better person.

My question is what happens in the other 20%?

I believe the only way to avoid the trap is to spend more time untangling the instrumental from the experiential reasons in our daily life. If we at least know why we think we’re pursuing a goal, we can correct for errors.

A Personal Example of Untangling

Over the last several months, I’ve done some effort to untangle my motivations in physical fitness.

I’m not a world-class athlete, but in most respects, I’m in good physical shape. I’m 5’11”, 160 lbs, I can easily run 10 km and I can do ten one-arm pushups in a row. I’m at a point where almost every fitness goal I set can’t really be justified on instrumental reasons.

However, because I’ve never met someone who has ever said to themselves, “done!” with an area of their life, I sometimes get new ideas for goals with my physical health. Maybe I could put on another 10-15lbs of muscle, or train to complete a one-arm chin up.

From an experiential perspective, these goals are still valid. The lesson here is that I make sure I catch myself whenever I start using instrumental reasons to justify setting the goal. Whenever I say to myself that adding muscle would make me more attractive, it would increase my energy levels or it would make me happier, I need to stop myself.

Because, it doesn’t take a lot of reasoning to realize those reasons aren’t particularly compelling. If I do decide to pursue one of these goals, it should be for the benefits associated with striving itself, such as enjoying the challenge or increasing my self-discipline.

Separate Your Motivations Before Starting a Project

Would you pursue a goal differently if you knew winning wouldn’t change your long-term happiness?

I believe the answer is yes.

That doesn’t mean the goal isn’t worth pursuing at all. You may become happier in the process of attaining the goal, even if the final step adds nothing to that process.

But it does mean you should be aware of the different reasons for pursuing a goal. Before starting a project, write down all the motivations you have for starting. Split those into two sections: the benefits of striving for the goal, and the benefits from achieving the results themselves.

Then you can ask yourself whether the reasons are valid, and maybe become a bit wiser about whether accomplishing the goal will actually improve your life.