Understanding Happiness: Goals and Achievement

Image of the word bird in a birdcage, from gratisography.com

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
He climbed for it,
And eventually he achieved it-
It was clay.
Now this is the strange part:
When the man went to the earth
And looked again,
Lo, there was the ball of gold.
Now this is the strange part:
It was a ball of gold.
Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.
~Stephen Crane, from Black Riders and Other Lines

Have you set out to achieve a goal and accomplished it only to realize it wasn’t what you wanted afterall? The discrepancy between how you feel when you reach a milestone and how you thought you would feel can be disappointing, but what causes that shift? I think there are a few possibilities.

  • It was the wrong goal at the beginning.
  • Circumstances have changed.
  • We’ve changed.
  • Sorcery.

In the first case, we believe that accomplishing X (having a story published, finishing a book, etc.) will make us happy. But that achievement might just be a substitute for what will actually make us happy. Perhaps we want to make someone proud or prove someone wrong. Maybe we think that receiving praise from others will boost our confidence. Or, maybe the goal involves some kind of financial payoff, and we think that having a certain amount of money will bring us happiness or satisfaction. We’ve misidentified either the cause of our misery or the source of our happiness. We are striving for placeholder, and we likely won’t be satisfied when we reach it.

In the second case, we correctly identified what would make us happy, but along the way, forces outside our control made the objective less attractive. Maybe you had your dream job picked out and started working toward it only to find out that everyone else had the same dream. Now, you’re qualified for a position that is highly competitive and not highly compensated. The third case is similar, except that we are the ones who changed. Maybe you once wanted to earn a doctorate and teach at a university, but in the course of that study, you discovered that you actually like working with children.

And the fourth case is sorcery.

Regardless of what puts you in this disappointed state, I think the following process can help alleviate future disappointment.

  1. Evaluate our aspirations. Really look at why we are working so hard for something. This doesn’t mean you have to have your lifetime achievements figured out before you ever start an adventure. Just be sure to give your goals a little extra thought, especially when achieving them is going to take a serious investment.
  2. Pay more attention to the journey. If we focus on the path, ensuring that our struggle is constructive and provides its own reward, then the goal itself is not as important. And our potential for disappointment isn’t as high. Yes, I’m saying it’s the journey, not the destination. It’s cliché. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
  3. Be prepared to change course. Even if you correctly identify your bliss, that doesn’t mean it won’t change, whether because you are different or the world is different. Keep an eye on your goals and occasionally take the time to modify them or scrap them if you determine they are no longer a priority for you. My favorite analogy here driving a car (or flying a plane, but never a boat, that’s a different analogy). At the beginning of a trip, you can’t just point your car in the right direction and then take your hands off the wheel. There are constant modifications and adjustments along the way. Even if you don’t have a car that tends to pull in one direction (as many of mine have), you have to watch out for other drivers and be aware of road conditions. Not to mention the fact that we don’t drive on straight roads.

Do you have see any balls in the sky that might turn out to be clay? What strategies do you use to ensure that you are satisfied when you achieve a goal?

Anyway, that’s what was on my mind. Hopefully you find it useful. If not, let me know so I can reevaluate my own path.

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