How to be Happy? Science Says Work on Your Goals

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

Pursuing happiness as a goal is a modern idea. [1] More than two centuries and a half ago, the whole of Western culture lived with a somewhat austere attitude towards life. It was a different time: society was closely religious, and the ordinary individual lived in constant struggle from day to day.   

Three hundred years later, norms and mores have changed. Enjoying religious freedom and the security of modern comforts, the average person is now free to take their minds off the trivial to ask self-actualizing questions. Questions like “How do I enjoy this life knowing there is an end?” “How to be happy?”  

What is happiness?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “happy” as feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. But according to Positive Psychology, it should not be confused with pleasure alone. [2] Happiness is a more stable state characterized by contentment and satisfaction while pleasure is more fleeting and temporary. Feeling pleasure can be part of the reason why a person is happy and being happy can heighten a person’s experience of pleasure, but they can exist independently of each other.  

What determines happiness?

Because happiness is a broad term and may mean different but similar things to different people, scientists often refer to it as “subjective well-being.” The key components used to assess an individual’s subjective well-being are the following:  

1. Balance of emotions - the experience of both negative and positive emotions  

2. Satisfaction in life - how satisfied one feels about the important areas of one's life: personal concerns, health state, work-related goals, financial status, and more 

Generally, a happy person is someone who experiences more positive than negative emotions and feels fulfilled in the different areas of life.  

Theories of Happiness

Current theories of happiness can be placed into two categories:  

1. Hedonic happiness - are positive experience achieved by doing activities that give one pleasure and enjoyment 

2. Eudaimonic happiness - are positive experience achieved by accomplishing something you consider to have meaning and purpose 

Many people believe real happiness can only come from going after a greater purpose, while others think happiness comes from enjoying the small things. A lot of people think to be happy is the goal of life while others believe happiness is only part of what makes life fulfilling.  

Despite all these theories, there are some things we can agree on:  

  • It’s good to be happy  
  • Happiness is neither a fleeting emotion nor a permanent feeling  
  • Purely chasing after pleasure all the time seldom leads to happiness  
  • Many things can make a person happy 

How does having goals affect your happiness (or subjective well-being)

If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things. - Albert Einstein

According to Vanessa King in her book called 10 Keys to Happier Living, having a sense of direction in life contributes to your sense of happiness. Specifically, having goals that align with your interests seems to increase your emotional well-being. [3]  

Feeling optimistic about the future helps you feel more confident about yourself and more grateful for your present circumstances, and it acts as an effective buffer for depression. [4] Hopeful people are also more likely to take care of themselves and persist through medical issues.  

When you have goals, you also become more resilient as your hope gives you the strength to cope through tough times. An inner belief that things will get better pushes you to focus on finding solutions to your problems instead of moping and being stuck in self-pity.  

Ultimately, the science is clear: adopting a future-focused approach toward life by having goals helps you be happier. [5]  

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs--even though checkered by failure--than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt

It’s a common problem especially among young people nowadays to feel stuck, stagnant, or lost in life. Setting goals for yourself is a brilliant and practical way to unstuck yourself all while building your self-respect and self-confidence in the process. It gives you the motivation to get up and rise to the occasion. When you know what you want to do or where you want to be, you’re resetting your focus to what matters, to what’s important.

But did you know that while accomplishing a goal triggers dopamine release or feel-good hormones, research, on the other hand, says that you are happier while you’re working towards a goal? [6] So don’t rush! Set yourself up for some simple victories. Start with small, doable goals to hype yourself up and build your confidence for bigger goals. Failure to achieve a goal or slow progress towards a goal can also discourage you to keep pushing.  

Here’s where it’s important to make sure your goals are well-defined, or SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound). The benefits of having clear goals will help you:  

  • Focus on what you want to accomplish  
  • Regain control of your life and refocus your direction 
  • Spend your time more meaningfully  
  • Feel more optimistic about what you do  
  • Discover more about yourself  
  • Meet new people that will inspire and teach you  
  • Build your strengths  
  • Know your weaknesses and address them  
  • Achieve milestones you will be proud of  
  • Learn and develop new technical and life skills  
  • Boost your confidence; and 
  • Earn self-respect, most of all 

A useful guide for what goals to pursue is to use the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Happiness. An idea he proposed in his 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation", this Pyramid of Happiness, also more commonly known as the Hierarchy of Needs, is a concept of motivation visualized in a five-tier model. [7]

Maslow believed that satisfying most of your lower-level needs, which he called Deficiency needs, is needed for you to be able to pursue or at least focus on your self-actualizing or “Being needs.” You don’t need to pursue them 100 percent, but you must at least be stable in that aspect of your life to be able to advance to the next level.  

To illustrate this idea, consider a homeless man who gets by day by day on the charity of others. To stay in high-traffic areas, they are more likely to compromise their personal safety. Their next meal is more important than where they sleep at night (physiological need over safety need.) They also don't spend time worrying about whether they look presentable to others when they must constantly think about finding a warm spot to sleep in every night (security over social needs). 

Thinking about your own motivations will help guide your actions and point you toward the right goals. At this point, a great strategy is to ask yourself a series of Why questions.  

Why do you want a big house? 

Why do you want your house to look good?  

Why does it matter to you what your relatives think?  

Sometimes, the deeper reason is not so obvious and a self-esteem need can masquerade as a basic need.  

The Pyramid of Happiness can lead to you interesting truths about yourself, help you address underlying inner conflicts, and point you towards more meaningful, self-developing pursuits.  

How to Use Goals to Be Happy

Take active steps to be happier today.  

1. Decide on a goal  

  Start with small goals to build your confidence to tackle bigger goals.  

2. Write it down  

Studies have shown that people who commit their goals to writing are more likely to achieve them.  

3. Be specific  

Know exactly what you want to accomplish, set a reasonable deadline for it, and set criteria that will let you know you’ve completed the goal.  

4. Plan how you intend to implement it  

The difference between a dream and a goal is a plan. Plot the steps that will make your dreams real.  

5. Break it down into smaller goals  

Is your goal too broad? Try breaking it down into smaller mini-goals and focusing on them one at a time.  

6. Minimize, if not eliminate, multitasking  

It divides your focus, increases the probability of making errors, and distracts and slows you down.  

7. Have an accountability partner  

Pick someone supportive, someone you know you can trust.  

8. Celebrate  

Don’t wait for the finish line to celebrate. Reward yourself with each milestone and you’ll nourish your sense of gratitude — an essential fuel to keep you moving forward.  

Here’s what five experts say on what it means to be happy. [8]

“Happiness isn’t something you feel. It’s something you do.”  

 - Nataly Kogan, author of Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones)  

“Being happy is more than satisfying your impulses.”  

 - Ellen Petry Leanse, author of The Happiness Hack: How to Take Charge of Your Brain and Program More Happiness into Your Life  

“We can find happiness at work.”  

 - Scott Crabtree, founder of the coaching and consulting organization Happy Brain Science  

“Don’t chase happiness—look for meaning instead.”  

 - Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness  

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”

- William James, philosopher, and psychologist  

Ready for a change? Practice your goal-setting skills today!  

As big champions of happiness, we recommend TaskSpur as a great app for setting goals and achieving them. TaskSpur is a goal management tool that uses the 8 steps above to help you easily create and track your goals, making sure all the important aspects of your life are accounted for: personal, work, finance, and health.  

Check out TaskSpur and cement your happiness journey. 

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References: 

[1] https://hbr.org/2012/01/the-history-of-happiness 

[2] https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-happiness/ 

[3] https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.75.2.494 

[4] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-03022-001  

[5] https://www.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org/index.php/ijow/article/view/733  

[6] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dont-delay/200806/goal-progress-and-happiness  

[7] https://www.happiness.com/magazine/science-psychology/what-is-maslows-pyramid/#:~:text=Maslow's%20'growth'%20or%20'being,as%20'self-actualization'.  

[8] https://www.health.com/mind-body/true-meaning-happiness