Why Your Goals Are Wrong

By Max Li | Published: August 24, 2013

Most of us want to increase the quality of our lives; one typical measurement of this is our happiness. There are a lot of people who proclaim “If I made a six-figure salary, then I’d be happy.” or “If I just got that internship at Google/Facebook/Apple, my career would take off and I’d live the best possible life.” or something else along those lines. These are all nice things to have, but achieving these goals won’t make you happy for the rest of your life.

Why does achieving a major life goal not produce lifelong happiness, you may ask? The key reason is a concept known as the hedonic treadmill. The basic idea of this psychological concept is that our happiness has a set point to which it will eventually return. Metaphorically, if you run a little quicker on the treadmill, but then stop, you will quickly return to the point where you started. Similarly, if you get that awesome job at SuperAwesome Co., you’ll be happy for a while, but after a some time you’ll adapt and that event will no longer bring you much happiness. (Conversely, this idea also brings an upside — you recover from negative events in a similar way.) So achieving these large goals doesn’t appear to be the correct way to proceed if you want to live an optimally happy life.

So what kind of goals should you work toward in order to maximize your happiness throughout your life? One solution is just to tweak your original goal a bit. If you add a bunch of sub-goals, such that the completion of each sub-goal bring some amount of happiness, you can get a sense of accomplishment more often, which will keep you above your happiness set point (i.e. you need to keep moving up on the treadmill). For example, if you want a job at a top Silicon Valley company, you should make mastering the parts of an algorithmic interview your goals (as opposed to simply getting a job at one of these companies). Doing this will keep you happier and probably more motivated and focused; maintaining a constant feedback cycle here is very important. By simply reframing your goal, you can use it to bring a constant boost to your quality of life. The key idea here is to remember that the quantity and distribution of progress is more important that the magnitude of it.

Keeping this notion of the hedonic treadmill in mind when making decisions has helped me a lot. It seems a little counterintuitive in that we’re often told that delaying gratification and imposing negative choices now is often the best choice. But we always have this desire for more than we currently have, so incrementally increasing our happiness is likely the better choice.