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Will Achieving Our Goals Actually Make Us Happy?

January is flying by, so I’m taking a second to pause and check on how I’m doing with my New Year’s resolutions. I’m an overambitious person, but self-aware enough to realize that I don’t always nail the follow-through, so my approach to resolutions is to make a whole bunch of goals and then hope that statistically by the end of the year I’ll have achieved one or two. Shoot for the moon, right? At this point I’ve put work toward exactly one of my (Ten? Twenty?) resolutions so far, so I’d give myself a score of ‘better than usual’. But my haphazard approach has never really worked out, and it’s certainly never ended up making me feel happier or better about myself. So as I was doing research for this post, I started thinking- maybe when it comes to resolutions, I should think about prioritizing quality over quantity. I began wondering how other people approached resolution-making, so I looked up the top ten resolutions from 2015:

TOP 10 NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

Stay fit and healthy

37%

Lose weight

32%

Enjoy life to the fullest

28%

Spend less, save more

25%

Spend more time with family and friends

19%

Get organized

18%

Will not make any resolutions

16%

Learn something new/new hobby

14%

Travel more

14%

Read more

12%

Source: Nielsen

 

As I read down the list, I was struck by the fact that none of these resolutions are about serving others or bettering the world in any way. For all that resolutions are supposed to be about self-improvement, it seems like more of them are about external improvement (losing weight, being organized, reading more) than personal growth. They’re more about achieving happiness than living a meaningful life.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with wanting to be healthier or more organized (both of those show up on my resolution list as well). And it makes sense that all of these resolutions are made with the underlying intent of becoming happier (or the explicit intent; see “Enjoy Life to the Fullest”). I mean, what’s wrong with trying to be happy? Does it matter that service to others isn’t on the list? What does a “meaningful life” even look like, anyway? Time for more research. I came across an article explaining a few studies that have been done on happiness and meaning (including one at the University of Connecticut, CT represent!) and I found myself learning new things:

“Though different people have different wellsprings of meaning, meaningful lives share three features […] purpose — the degree to which you feel directed and motivated by valued life goals; comprehension — the ability to understand and make sense of your life experiences and weave them into a coherent whole; and mattering — the belief that your existence is significant and valued. When people say their lives are meaningful, in other words, it’s because they feel their lives have purpose, coherence, and worth.

[…]people who highly value happiness — as measured by their endorsement of statements like “Feeling happy is very important to me” — reported feeling lonelier on a daily basis, as assessed in diary entries over two weeks. By contrast, the pursuit of meaning leads to a deeper and more lasting form of well-being.”

Another study found that:

“[…] Although the students in the happiness group experienced more positive feelings and fewer negative ones immediately after the study, three months later their mood boost had faded. The students focused on meaning, meanwhile, did not feel as happy right after the experiment, which makes sense: meaningful pursuits, like helping a friend, require sacrifice and effort, and can even be painful in the moment. Yet three months later, the picture was different. The students who had pursued meaning said they felt more “enriched,” “inspired,” and “part of something greater than myself.” They also reported fewer negative moods. Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning was more deeply satisfying than chasing happiness.”

Being more satisfied with life while also helping others seems like a win-win to me. So as I revisit my resolutions, I’m planning to make some edits and really think about which goals I want to prioritize and how I can serve others this year. And I encourage you to do the same.

Live United,

Caitlin