It’s January, so much of social media, news, magazine articles, and the like turns to goals, goals, goals.
Having a goal for your life is like having a diagnosis for a patient.
Now you have a direction (for healing). You know what you have to do to get there (the specific treatment), you know what the obstacles might be (complications), and yet you have to keep an open mind in case you need to change your plan of action or even pivot away from the goal (change the treatment, the diagnosis, or both).
When making a diagnosis, you must be careful of premature diagnostic closure (it’s a real thing), where you settle too quickly on the diagnosis and may miss or ignore details that don’t fit your chosen diagnosis.
You can do the same with goals, especially when you adopt objectives given to you by your family, peer group, or society. It can be easy to believe that these laudable achievements are your goals, but sometimes pursuing these types of goals leads to results you don’t want.
It’s important to examine if the goal was handed down to you, like someone else’s clothes, to see if it fits and feels comfortable.
And just like clothing hand-me-downs, you may need to make alterations or even give them away because they don’t suit. It’s also ok to wear them for a bit until you are able to find your authentic wardrobe.
Having a goal can also set you up for the “arrival fallacy,” a term coined by author and researcher Tal Ben Shahar in Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. It is the belief that once you reach your goal or life milestone, you will be significantly happier for a sustained period of time, maybe even forever.
I fell into this trap on the way to becoming a doctor: Once I get into medical school, I can relax; Once I get into residency, life will be better; Once I become an attending, everything will be so much better!
Spoiler alert: Things did change, but a house on the corner of Happy and Easy Street was not where I landed and lived. Not because the goal was “wrong” but because I had expectations that exceeded what any achievement can deliver.
Also, achievements can come with new problems. Just like treatment for a condition can result in complications.
In one of my favorite scenes in the TV show Madmen, Joan says to Roger, when he tries to rekindle their relationship, “I’m not the solution to your problem. I’m another problem.”
Have you had this experience? You reached a goal you set for yourself, and while having a sense of achievement, it wasn’t all you thought it would be, and rather than things getting easier, they actually had new challenges.
The joy and relief that accompany the sense of accomplishment soon fade. Sometimes you wonder, “Is that all there is?” or feel disheartened when the new life status brings with it as many problems as it solves.
When this happens, you can mistakenly believe something is wrong with either you or the goal. But it’s not. It’s a normal reaction.
This has been shown repeatedly in studies on people achieving goals like promotion, tenure, or finishing residency. There is a bump in the sense of happiness around the time of achievement, but it pretty quickly falls back to your previous set point because reaching goals doesn’t “make” you happy.
You can also fall into the trap of immediately chasing the next goal. That must be the one. That’s what I’m lacking. But goals, like another person, cannot complete you. The missing piece is not out there.
Goals can help guide the steps you take next on the way to creating the life you want. A life that will have purpose and meaning and more than a little joy.
Happiness isn’t something you “get” when a goal is reached. It’s something you make along the way as you become a new version of yourself. It’s taking pleasure in the moments along the way and the joy you experience as you live your life in a meaningful and purposeful way.
Goals can change. Our persistence and determination may hinder us from periodically rethinking whether each goal is still one we want to accomplish. Because if it’s not, it’s time to pivot.
Goals give us something to work towards. They teach us about delayed gratification, dreaming big, and planning, and often lead to a sense of satisfaction when they are reached.
However, when we focus too intently on the destination, we tend to lose enjoyment on the journey and, at the same time, bestow the goal with an excessive amount of ability to cure whatever we are struggling with in our lives.
And yet, without goals, even small ones, day-to-day living can seem kind of…pointless, meandering, and aimless, especially for people who were taught early that achievement would lead to happiness.
So we need goals, but we shouldn’t expect them to heal all hurts or significantly change who we are. Indeed, on the way to achieving the goal, we assume a new identity. The identity of someone who has attained that goal.
We thrive when our lives have purpose and meaning by our own assessment. This sense of purpose and meaning can be unique, and goals can contribute to realizing those crucial values. But it’s essential not to imbue reaching the goal with magical transformative powers. The transformation occurs along the way, not at the endpoint.
So set all the goals you want. Fill your life with achievement if that lights you up. But be aware it’s the process, not the milestone, that yields the coveted dividends of contentment and happiness that are part of a healthy life.
Victoria Silas is an orthopedic surgeon and physician coach. She can be reached at Medical Minds Consulting.