Choosing Goals That Support Well-Being

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
April 22, 2021

We all have goals in life. Some are pretty clear, like wanting to run a mile under 7 minutes by the end of the year. Others, such as being happy, are more vague and undefined in how to achieve it. Has there been a time when you didn’t have a goal? No deadline to meet or sense of where you want to go or what you want to do? 

Why Bother Setting Goals

Goals give our lives meaning. They help us focus our time and attention...and without them, we can feel lost. Having meaningful goals may boost self-esteem and give us confidence to make changes in our lives and our world. Working towards some end and being rewarded for our efforts brings about a sense of joy and pride. Such positive emotions are not only pleasant on their own, they help motivate us to put more effort toward future goals. Without goals, we might become disconnected or experience boredom and apathy.

Furthermore, goals add structure and interest to our lives. They help us concentrate on the tasks that must be completed to achieve the desired result. This brings with it variety and growth that can foster the mastery of new skills and broaden our perspectives. We learn to strategize and prioritize our time through our goals and oftentimes, our goals help us connect with others. Goals may also be helpful in times of crisis. When COVID closed down the way we interacted in our world, were you able to look to your goals to keep you grounded?

How to Set Goals That Support Well-Being

Some general scientific advice offered by researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests finding intrinsic goals (motivation that comes from within such as for the love of doing something) instead of extrinsic goals (motivation that comes from external factors such as getting paid for doing something). Intrinsic goals are more likely to promote well-being because we find them inherently valuable and satisfying. They help us grow and connect with others and nurture basic psychological needs such as mastery, relatedness, and autonomy. 

It is important to examine whether the goals you have selected are flexible and appropriate. Where are you at in your stage of life? What abilities do you possess and what are the norms of your culture? For example, younger individuals tend to focus on goals related to certain priorities, such as buying a house and starting a family, while older individuals may focus on goals that are more emotionally meaningful. When circumstances change, being realistic and creative in how we adapt can support our well-being. 

Lastly, consider choosing goals that involve taking up a new activity instead of improving our circumstances. While getting a new television is certainly attractive, it soon loses its novelty and fades into the everyday. In contrast, the goal of learning to cook opens up a range of potential new experiences such as tasting new food, meeting new people, and developing new skills. Activity goals present us novelty on an ongoing basis and we can continue to apply what we have learned long after the initial experience is over.

Following Through on Goals

What gets in the way of you achieving your goals? Perhaps your willpower is waning or maybe you are not sure what steps to take first. Maybe there is an obstacle that is blocking your way and you do not know how to get around it. These “attention robbers” can distract us and interfere with our goal pursuits. Here are a few suggestions for keeping you moving towards reaching your goals:

  • Choose wisely. Think about how the goal might help ease a source of unhappiness or work with your strengths. Identify whether or not it fits with your lifestyle.
  • Own your goals and commit with passion. Base your goals on core desired feelings so that pursuing and realizing them will promote feeling how you want to feel.
  • Create self-fulfilling prophecies. Envision positive, instead of negative, outcomes along with experiencing those core desired feelings.
  • Be flexible. Be compassionate and kind to yourself if you cannot achieve a goal due to life circumstances or if a new goal replaces another goal.
  • Do not undermine intrinsic motivation. Disregard naysayers that distract you from your goal.
  • Take baby steps: Break down your goals into smaller parts. Ask yourself “what is the next small step that I need to do in pursuit of my goal?”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, text HOME to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call 911.

The Healthy Minds Blog shares information related to youth mental health and wellness for an audience of parent, educators and community-based providers. Articles include tips and strategies for increasing wellness and resiliency, as well as fostering success at home, at school and in the community.

The Healthy Minds Blog is a collaborative project between Fairfax County Public Schools and the Prevention Unit of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. It is part of the Healthy Minds Fairfax (see below) initiative, designed to support emotional wellness in youth and families.

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