The deception of goals

Conditioning happiness and self-worth on the achievement of goals is self-sabotage. It means living in the uncertain future and giving up on enjoying the 99.9% of time and effort put into achieving your ambitions. Instead, strive to design an execution plan that you will enjoy and that will eventually get you there. Enjoy the process.

Life is full of opportunities to set up wishes and goals. From early age up until the end of life, we are continuously setting up wish lists and have desires. Society encourages us. Birthdays, new year resolutions, eyelashes. Daily events, happy or sad, present us with the occasion of setting up even more goals for ourselves. 

Positive experiences might set you up to want more of that in a higher dose. Negative ones might push you to want to avoid it completely and offset them with better future outcomes. Either through reinforcing positive experiences or frustrations, we end up increasing our desire to reach a better place.

Goal psychology

In a sense, almost everyone is setting up goals in order to improve a part of their life. They help building and creating your identity. Fulfilled goals potentially add up to happiness and enjoyment of life. It follows that we then associate the achievement of the goal, the fulfilment of our desires with an increase in happiness. It means that the extra boost in happiness only happens at the finish line and, hence, for the time leading to that moment you are unhappier than after. And here’s the problem: you mentally lock yourself into that desired level of happiness so your current state, compared to that one, is of relative unhappiness.

You project yourself in a more wealthy, healthy and wise situation – a state when you are happy. But the key point is that by contrast you associate the remaining of the time with unhappiness. With the non-existence of those things.

“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.” (Quote from Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList)

It’s an easy trap. It’s also self reinforcing, because the more frustrated you are the more it makes you want to achieve it and hence the more likely is that you will work hard to get it. Do this a few times, reach your goals motivated by unhappiness, and you’ll end up forever chasing.

This article points to the philosophical explanation that this is human nature: that humans cannot withdraw from the cycle of dissatisfaction, labour, goal and repeat. Is it true, though?

Deconstructing it

There are three perspectives of looking at goals and avoiding placing your hopes of happiness on their achievement:

  1. It lasts too little, it’s not worth it.

    Achievement of a goal, in fact, the conscious realisation that it happened lasts little. You spend 99% of the time working for your goals and 1% enjoying it as an “achieved” goal.

    “And accept that quality long-term results require quality long-term focus. No emotion. No drama. No beating yourself up over small bumps in the road. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the process. This is especially important because you are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of triumph at the end.” (Quote from the book Tools of titans by Tim Ferriss)Do not deny yourself the chance of being happy for 99% of the time.

  2. Goals are future uncertain things.

    You may achieve them, you may not. Deciding to be unhappy until something completely uncertain might happen is basically deciding that you may never be happy. That’s a decision you take alone, but mostly unconscious.

  3. You’ll remember the ride more than the finish line.

    When you’ll reach your goals do you want to remember those times as sad and miserable?

How to fix it

By any means, set goals. That’s a good thing. Goals are the building blocks of adulthood.

Start with intelligently planning the steps that reach your carefully chosen life goals. There are plenty of good strategies and systems to design your goals, from S.M.A.R.T. to microresolutions and habit creation. Use the one that works best for you, because they are all useful.

Once that’s done and the decision is made to go for that plan, don’t think about it again. You’ve made the choice, you’ve committed, that’s it. Trust your plan.

It will take as long as it’s going to take.

You might as well enjoy the ride. In fact, you should only think about the ride. Make it your goal to enjoy the process of reaching your goals. Pun intended. Enjoyment does not mean necessarily being in a continuous state of ecstasy. But it means not denying yourself the eventual happiness that might result from it.

What to avoid

Setting up goals as a form of escapism.

We make them because at first it’s fun, it feels good but then they progressively become a sort of escapism.The brain enjoys thinking about how it would be if they came true and gets a little dopamine boost.

Finally, we can end up delusional and giving up on living in the present with the hope that in the future it’s all going be so much better.

Handling slow progress

Patience is what it takes. In fact, part of successfully achieving your goals is handling the frustration that comes on the way. Most people give up because of that.

“In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals. Unreasonable expectations timewise, resulting in unnecessary frustration, due to a perceived feeling of failure.”  (Quote from the book Tools of titans by Tim Ferriss)


It’s an easy trap to focus and condition your happiness on the achievement of goals. Goals are important until you set them, but after that, your commitment to the plan is all it takes. The journey becomes more important then.

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