The trouble with goals

Narrow goals can stop you seeing the bigger picture.  Photo by Marc A on Unsplash

It’s still fashionable in self-improvement circles to talk about goals.  While they can be helpful in giving us direction, they can also stop us growing.

A large number of popular psychology books sell themselves on the promise of helping us to achieve our goals.  Getting beautiful, losing weight, getting a job you want, getting a romantic partner, getting money… what they have in common is that the goals are acquisitive.  In other words, the kind of goals that we are encouraged to have, are focused on ending up with more of something than we started with.  Acquiring beauty; acquiring a slim figure; acquiring a desirable job; acquiring money.

The only type of goal where we use other words is finding a romantic partner.  We talk about attracting a partner, or finding a partner.  But often this hides a reality in which we are still thinking in terms of acquisition, as though once we are attached long-term to another person, we somehow ‘own’ that relationship.


The problem with acquisitive goals, is that they go against nature.  It is the nature of things to change and end.  If you acquire beauty it will fade; if you acquire a healthy body it will die; if you find a good job it will end; money flows away; relationships are fallible and not infinite.  It is true that chasing goals is in our nature.  While evolving, we survived by finding things, hunting things, building things.  But if we ever start to believe that these things we acquire are permanent, then we are deluded.

It is perhaps better to set goals, if we do so, in the short term, and with a light heart.  By all means have an intention to look after yourself and keep your body functioning well.  But do it with a sense of humour.  After all, you are not a statue, but a short-living animal.


Wider aims can actually conflict with narrow goals, and vice versa.  If you have a wider aim to stay financially solvent, then you will notice that many of your shorter goals cost you money and contradict your wider aim.  If you have a wider aim to have a good family life, then you may notice that your short term business goals interfere with that, and keep you away from those you love.  We have to face the fact that our lives are full of contradictions, and we are sometimes our own worst enemy.  And we are very stubborn.  We just keep doing these contradictory things, despite the fact that we shoot ourselves in the foot.


It’s worth spending some time thinking about what your widest aim might be.  You don’t have to choose anything, but life can seem more meaningful if you make a few decisions about what you value the most.  If you then live according to this widest aim, you can find the rest of your life falling in with the pattern, especially if you have chosen your widest aim well.

For instance, if your widest aim is simply to stay beautiful, then you have set yourself up for depression when the ageing process contradicts that and forces you to accept your own decline.  So it doesn’t seem a very sensible widest aim, simply from the point of view of your own happiness, let alone anyone else’s.

However, if you have a widest aim that others can share in, and that involves kindness, acceptance, and promoting universal happiness… well, you might get fed up now and again that the world is pretty awful, but, on the other hand, you have a quest that a lot of other people are engaging in.  What’s more, an increasing amount of happiness research seems to suggest that such selfless overall aims lead to a happier life.  Ironically, it seems that to gain your own happiness, you are wise to aim for the happiness of others.


To explore how short term goals interact with long term aims, I’d like to suggest a very open style of exercise.

Find a period of about three hours in your week, when you have no ties, and can escape from your usual routines.  Then go out into the street, into the company of others, with no aim but the intention to promote general happiness.  That’s it.  Nothing else.  Don’t have any short term goals to go to this shop or that, or to acquire anything.  Just go out into society with the clear intention to bring happiness to others.

Even if you can’t think of anything definite to do, perhap focus on smiling.  Something I have noticed, is that when you smile as other people approach, they receive a message from you that their presence is welcome.  This naturally makes most people happy, so it is a good thing to do in order to enhance general happiness.  A standard meditation in this regard is to imagine that everyone you meet is in some sense a figure you respect, whether it be a Buddha, Christ, a prophet, a caring mother or father, a saint… whatever brings your mind to respect the other.  Even if they are not, the fact of you smiling to them and welcoming them gratefully may remind them that the world is full of good.  You never know what you are creating with a smile.

Free of responsibilities, you may find yourself taking trolleys back to the supermarket, clearing up bits of litter, helping people carry bags… the important thing is not any grand plan.  The important thing is that, just for a while, you have cleared the decks, taken up a general aim of general happiness, and then are watching for opportunities to help.

It can be addictive, in a good way.  If it becomes more pleasant than the other things you do, then you might even seek it out more.  Your old goals of acquiring beauty, status and wealth might seem a little empty and unnecessary.



Many pop psychology books sell us the idea that we can achieve our selfish goals by following a plan.  The trouble is, our lives are big, and goals are small.  You will find that your goals conflict with the bigger picture.  Sometimes it is good to start the other way round, with a widest aim.  And research seems to suggest that the best wide aims are to do with enhancing others’ happiness, not your own.  Strangely, by promoting others’ happiness, you become happier than you would if you pursued your selfish goals.

As an exercise, clear some time, go out into society, and live with the sole intention of increasing others’ happiness with a warm smile and helpful attitude.  You may find your old selfish goals seem empty in comparison.