Want to flourish? Why science says you need a goal.

Do you have goals?

With the Olympic Games up and running (and very popular viewing in our household) it's got me thinking about the importance of goals, how they propel us forward and how they contribute to our mental health and well being. 

I've never been an Olympic athlete but I imagine they list medals, world records and personal bests amongst their aspirations for these two weeks. Big goals.

The athletes that achieve these goals are at the top of their game, both physically and psychologically. There has been years of unrelenting training, competing, diet management, injuries, rehabilitation, drive and determination poured into getting to this point. They are primed for utmost performance right now.

There are accolades for those who win. 

But does it make them happy?

Goals, mental health and flourishing.

There are many stories of Olympic athletes who have battled depression and anxiety. Elite sport can be brutal and it's not a lifestyle suited to balance and a well-rounded life.

But there's more to goals than winning. 

Psychological research into goals and goal attainment tells us that the process of striving towards a goal plays a big part in helping us to grow and develop and that's associated with happiness and a sense of well being. An Olympic gold medal is a tremendous achievement but if the drive and motivation to get there is not consistent with our inner values and sense of purpose then it's not enough for happiness.

How do I strive towards a goal?

Striving is more than positive thinking and the law of attraction

In order to really strive towards a goal, in the psychological sense, we need to:  

  • Take action. It's no good sending intentions into the universe and hoping that they come to life without any effort on our part. Striving implies moving towards what you want from life in an intentional and conscious manner.
  • Set goals that are consistent with our values and personal identity. The goals that make us happy are those that come from the heart. They are who we want to be not what we want to be - fitter, thinner, smarter, stronger, wealthier. They are intensely personal and must come from within you, not external forces.
  • Focus on the process of getting there and not the end result. A slip or trip may see us miss out on a big win but when we focus on the process we still gain the benefit of our effort without taking out the prize. 

Goal striving doesn't have to be strenuous. 

Immense effort is required to become an Olympic athlete but for the rest of us goals can involve slacking off. A goal to do less is no less beneficial than a performance goal. In fact a goal to do less might be of greater benefit to your happiness and well being if it is consistent with your sense of self and what you need right now.

A meaningful, useful goal - the kind associated with flourishing - is an intention that gives structure and order to our lives. It's more than a stretch target driven by fear or failure or a need to achieve. It's the bigger picture that drives us forward.

I'm in awe of the dedication, commitment and physical and psychological effort displayed by the athletes in Rio and they've inspired me. I won't be donning my running shoes or attempting any gymnastic manoeuvres though. I'm going to spend the next week thinking about my goals, whether they are consistent with my greater purpose and sense of self and how I can strive towards them in order to enhance my happiness and flourish. That's worth a gold medal, don't you think?

So go on, tell me, do you have goals? Want to flourish with me?