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Be careful what you wish for: How your goals may undermine your wellbeing and what to do about it.

I know you have goals; you’re driven to achieve impact in the world, and perhaps you believe that when you achieve your goal it will make you happy. And yes, the achievement of some goals will make you happy, but then what?

Once the goal is achieved what will you pin your happiness on then?

The relationship between goal setting, striving to achieve them and emotional well-being is complex. A study in 2012 suggested that depending on why you have set the goal, your progress towards achieving it may influence your well-being in different ways1.

Goals are typically motivated in one of two directions:

  • Approach goals are those we set in order to achieve a desired outcome (e.g. to have a positive impact in the world).

  • Avoidance goals are those we set in order to avoid an undesired outcome (e.g. losing weight in order to avoid diabetes).

In general, research shows that approach goals enhance emotional well-being whereas avoidance goals do not.

In addition, research shows that when goals are focused on personal development, well-being increases, whereas materialistic gain-driven goals lead to decreases in well-being.

However, the extent to which goals enhance well-being is also linked to your motives – to why you set that goal in the first place, or your goal striving reasons AND how happy you are with your progress towards achieving them.

Motives can be considered in four broad categories:

1) to avoid losing self-esteem (to be seen to be ‘worthy’),

2) to have a positive impact on others,

3) for pleasure,

4) because it is necessary.

Research suggests that if you’re motivated to have a positive impact, or by pleasure or by maintaining self-esteem AND you are happy with your progress towards your goals then your well-being will be high.

So, what do you do if you’re not happy with your progress and your well-being is suffering as a consequence?

Here are my suggestions:

a) Look at your goal – what is your genuine reason for pursuing it? Are you being honest with yourself? Does it need modifying? Is it an approach goal, if not, how can you modify it so that it is?

b) Is it unrealistic? Can it be achieved within a time-frame you are happy with?

c) Have you created a hope-map2 that:

- Clearly states the goal you want to achieve in the next 12 months

- Identifies the three core steps you need to take to achieve it

- Clarifies potential obstacles that may arise for each step, and

- An alternative pathway around the obstacle

d) Do you have interim goals? Do you have daily habits that you know are the breadcrumbs that will lead you to achieving your goal?

e) Are you monitoring your daily progress effectively?

Reflection, review and revision is key to progress - so give it a go and see what happens!


1Ehrlich, C. (2012). Be careful what you wish for but also why you wish for it–Goal-striving reasons and subjective well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(6), 493-503.

2 Feldman, D. B., & Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(4), 745-759


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