Want To Be Happy? Forget About Your Goals

I know it’s hard.

You’ve had the “achievement/goals” credo shoved down your throat since you were a little kid. Even if your parents were free-wheeling hippies it’s still ubiquitous in the culture. Your employers believe in it. Your peers believe it. Your friends believe it. You believe it.

But ask yourself: is it making any of us happier?

I doubt it.

What it is doing is making you feel anxious, guilty, stressed, and future-obsessed.

You have the vague sense that life is flying by, leaving you waist-deep in the mud. You keep trying harder and harder and it never seems to get easier. There’s always more to do and less time to do it. You think: “I was supposed to have x by now!” You never get to that mythical “AAH” moment where you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Even when you’re in what should be one of those moments you can’t really enjoy it; your brain is focused on what you’re missing, or what you “should” be doing to achieve even more.

In short, you’re the farthest thing from “happy”.

That “AAH” moment is mythical for a good reason: you’re following a myth. A fiction.

Let’s dispel it right here and now.

Happiness has nothing to do with achieving goals.

In fact, let’s take it even further: no one in the history of human goal-seeking has ever achieved a goal and said: “That’s it! I’m happy now!”

It just simply has never happened. Ever.

Which is not to say there aren’t happy people.

There are. They exist.

You may even know such a person. Think about them for a moment. (Or, if you don’t know a happy person, imagine what such a person might be like.) My bet is they’re probably happy not with this or that circumstance in their life, or with whether they’ve achieved something or not. (In fact, you may even have noticed they’re happy in spite of their circumstances.)

They’re happy because they’re happy with who they are as a person.

Their happiness (or fulfillment, if you prefer the term) seems to boil down to one ridiculously simple thing: integrity.

Simply put, they’re walking their talk. Present-tense.

Think back to a time in your own life when you’ve been happiest. I’m betting “achievement” was the furthest thing from your mind at the time. You were happy because whatever you were doing felt right. It was you at your best, whatever that meant to you. You were doing a job you loved, or forging a connection with someone, making a difference in someone’s life, or expanding your knowledge, or improving some other aspect of your existence.

Happiness, it seems, is when we experience the alignment of the “in-here” with the “out-there”. It’s when our view of ourselves at our best, whatever that may be, aligns with our present-day actions.

Happiness does not obey the myth of “I will be happy when x.” It only cares about one thing: are we, right now, living consistently with our inner vision? Does the external camera view, the “out-there”, currently match the internal storyboard?

If we’re showing up day after day to a job we hate, for example, or putting up with a toxic relationship, or simply putting off something we know we should be focused on, we’re miserable. Our actions are out of alignment with who we are. We are “living a lie”.

But if our actions are in alignment with our internal view (telling that boss what he can do with his job; or telling that toxic significant other to go on a long, leisurely walk off the shortest pier they can find; or putting the first words of that long-put-off novel down on paper) there is no delay: we experience happiness now, present-tense, regardless of whether it has born the fruit of achievement yet or not.

In fact, I don’t think a happy person even particularly cares about achievement. If the achievement comes, great. But what’s really important is that they’re satisfying their own conditions for living well, whatever that might mean to them.

They’re doing the right things, making the right choices. And they know it.

When you focus on goals, you’re focused on Having. By definition, you don’t have them (duh… otherwise they wouldn’t be goals) which means you’re almost perpetually focused on Not Having. Even when you eventually do “get” something, you immediately switch focus to the next set of things you don’t Have.

Happiness, to the goal-seeker, is an ever-receding finish line.

Even worse are goals based on Being. Trying to “Be” something is always bound to lead to confusion, frustration, and even conflict with others, because it’s inflexible: sometimes it will be true, sometimes not, based on factors out of your control. If I’m trying to “be” a “writer” while I should be focused on my significant other, or paying attention to my kids, for example, all I’m actually succeeding at “being” is a self-centered dick.

But you always have control over Doing.

Goals, if you think about it, are nothing more than a deliberate choice to postpone happiness. To a happy person this is just… dumb. They know the goal-setting/happiness-postponement cycle for what it is: a recipe for continual frustration, an experience of life as tragic and unfulfilling, punctuated with brief spikes of pleasure, followed by new anxieties, frustrations, new guilt, etc.

No thanks.

Eastern philosophy has been telling us this all along: it’s all about the journey. A happy person experiences happiness with every step on that journey, even the very first step, provided that step is consistent with their vision of themselves and their life. Sure, they may define a strategy for themselves, but the experience of happiness is in the execution, not in whether or not it ultimately bears fruit.

It’s in showing up. Doing the right things. Taking pleasure in the unfolding.

Really, “goals”, to a happy person, are besides the point. They’re a side-effect, a byproduct, of a life well-lived. In fact, they may even be likely to achieve them without noticing, since for them, they’re simply a matter of course.

Maybe you’ve had this experience before: you didn’t notice, or really ever even focus on making some aspect of your life better, but when you reflected on where you were five years ago versus today you realized: “Holy snizzle snacks. If I met Five-Years-Ago Me in a dark alley wielding a lead pipe… I could take him out with my thumb.”

Your “achievement” was not something you ticked off on a list or even consciously focused on – it just happened because of who you decided to be as a person. By living well, making decisions according to your vision, and enjoying the journey, you found yourself, quite to your own surprise, in a better place.

If, on the other hand, you had consciously focused on that goal over the same time period, you would have been frustrated, guilty, anxious, always focusing always on what you “lacked”.

I see this in a lot of writers. They might have a goal of “getting their novel published”, for example. They buy into the myth that “happiness comes from achieving goals” so they experience each day it isn’t published as a frustration, an ongoing torture, perhaps even viewing it as “unfair”. The more time passes the more the anxiety, frustration, and stress mounts. Time is their enemy, always stealing another day of their lives. Time not spent working on the “getting their novel published” is time spent in guilt. Perhaps even anger and resentment (at loved ones, co-workers, other writers, etc.)

They may even claim they “love what they do”, but I doubt it. To them it’s all a futile, frustrating race against an ever-ticking clock. Their experience of “Being a Writer” is something akin to being slowly turned on a spit.

Even if they do publish, they just take on a new set of anxieties. Will I be able to do it again? What if I’m a one-hit wonder? What if people see through that thin veneer of cleverness and realize I’m a hack??, etc.

(If you ever think you’re indulging in self-loathing, talk to a writer for about five minutes and you’ll be irrevocably cured.)

A happy writer, on the other hand, knows it’s all about the journey.

They focus on honing their craft, getting a better grasp on language, reading other great (and not-so-great) writers, developing better editing skills, fine-tuning their work habits, producing consistently, getting better at taking feedback and making improvements. They know that if they keep doing the right things “getting published” will be a matter of course. They don’t get hung up on whether a particular project succeeds or fails. They don’t pour too much frustrated, angry energy into this novel, since they know the truth that sometimes novels are just practice for future novels.

In short, they take great pleasure in the Doing.

They know they’re doing the right things, even if “achievement” is still on the far horizon. They experience happiness now, as a direct result of their integrity: they’re walking their talk. Every day spent writing, to them, is a blessing and a joy. Which is not to say “easy”, of course; most days it’s like trying to push an angry bear uphill while wearing roller skates. But it doesn’t matter because they’re living the life they envision. They might even be getting closer to an “achievement” without being aware, or even directly focusing on it.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. They‘re already experiencing the alignment of “in-here” and “out-there”. They’re already fulfilled.

Maybe you’ve noticed this: almost every successful person credits it to repetition. A few basic actions, focused on repeatedly. And it’s given them everything they have. What are those actions for you?

Try this, even if it’s just for one week: dispense with your “goals”.

Instead focus on Doing the right things.

Ask yourself: are you living life on your own terms? Are you walking your talk?

If not, take the first step toward doing so. See what happens.

I’m betting that as soon as you do you’ll be able to say hello to an emotion that’s been hiding in plain sight all along. Right behind your mythical notion of “goals”.


What do you think? Do you focus on “goals” or do you focus on doing the right things? If you do focus on goals are they making you happy? Has this post changed how you think about goals? Leave a comment below!

Oh, and if you need more convincing that happiness has nothing to do with goals, read Leo Babauta’s excellent piece at zenhabits: Achieving Without Goals.

‘There is no way to happiness — happiness is the way.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

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