Psychological Research Can Help Us Avoid Setting The Wrong Goals

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals that there is a strong association between the types of goals we set for ourselves and how satisfied and happy we are in our lives.

This research focused on how well-being relates to two types of goals: those that are intrinsic and those that are extrinsic.

“Intrinsic goals feel good in the moment and over the long term,” explains lead author Dr. Emma Bradshaw, a motivation and well-being researcher at Australian Catholic University, Sydney. “It feels good to make a new friend and it feels good to build and maintain that friendship over time.”

Extrinsic aspirations, on the other hand, are more materialistic. While they might feel good in the moment, they are less likely to support feelings of wellness in the long term.

To arrive at this conclusion, Bradshaw and her team conducted a meta-analysis of 90 previous studies that included over 70,000 participants. Each of the studies explored the link between goals and well-being in some way.

Intrinsic goals, which focus on personal growth and connections with others, were found to be strongly and reliably linked to feelings of wellness. In contrast, the prioritization of extrinsic goals, such as earning money or being popular, was found to have a negative effect on well-being. These negative effects were consistent across different groups and contexts.

According to Bradshaw, the study’s findings support the idea that intrinsic goals are important for well-being because they contribute to developing a sense of ownership over one’s life. Intrinsic goals help us connect with others and feel more capable and confident about achieving our goals.

However, the best path to boosting our well-being may lie in striking a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic goals.

“When intrinsic goals are the primary focus and extrinsic goals are in the background, one has sources of short-term and long-term need satisfaction and wellness,” explains Bradshaw.

If you feel like you invest too much time and energy into achieving extrinsic goals, Bradshaw offers five goal-setting tips:

  1. Before setting a goal, ask yourself if it aligns with your personal values.
  2. Revise your goals based on your values.
  3. Understand that material achievements rarely top the list of things you are most thankful for.
  4. Spread out your interests to have a more realistic approach to the goal-setting process.
  5. Ask for an outside opinion about your goals from a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that intrinsic goals are crucial for well-being, while the prioritization of extrinsic goals can have negative effects on well-being. By focusing on personal growth and connections with others, individuals may be able to lead more happy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

Bradshaw and her team hope that the findings of their study will encourage individuals to consider the types of goals they prioritize in their lives and place more emphasis on intrinsic goals.

A full interview with Dr. Emma Bradshaw discussing her new research can be found here: A psychologist discusses why well-being is rooted in the goals we set for ourselves