I am often asked what’s wrong with setting a goal to “be happy” or “feel good.” The problem is that these “goals” are subjective — ultimately circular. Goals need to be objective.
To understand that goals need to be objective, first you need to understand what a goal is, and how it relates to emotions.
A goal is an intention you set to achieve a particular outcome. If you achieve the outcome, you succeed. If you don’t, you fail. It has a definite stopping place.
When you set a goal, you immediately change part of your psychology a little bit — you change your subconscious value hierarchy. The act of setting the intention gives your intended outcome a value significance to you. It is now identified as good and important to you. As a result, from that moment forward, you will feel emotions about the goal and your pursuit of it.
Absent other factors, if you see an opportunity to achieve the goal, you’ll feel desire. If you see a threat to achieving it, you’ll feel fear. If you sit around without doing anything about achieving it, you’ll feel guilt. If you take some steps to achieve it and fail, you will feel frustration.
In other words, an important function of your emotional system is to alert you to information which seems relevant to your achieving your goal. Both positive and negative emotions are useful in this regard. Emotions are an integral part of your value system.
Your value system is partly biological, partly chosen. A baby is born with a functioning value system, based on certain physical needs, such as food, water, and a comfortable body temperature. If the baby lacks one of these, he cries. From the time of birth, anything associated with fulfilling physical needs gets stored as a value in his value system.
As a child develops his mind, a new factor is involved in forming values: choice. The child learns that his choices affect his life. He learns the importance of gaining knowledge and initiating action to meet his needs and achieve his goals. This is why setting a goal infuses the goal with value significance.
But of course, he can make mistakes in figuring out what goals to set and how to achieve them. This is why as adults we all have philosophies — to help us figure out what’s true and what’s good.
If you’ve been reading my writing for long, you know that all of the ideas about psychology that I share are developed on the basis of my particular philosophy, Objectivism. Two key conclusions from Objectivism relevant to this discussion are:
1) The standard of good is what promotes man’s survival — man qua man the rational animal. The standard of good is that which is necessary for a living organism that survives by the use of its mind to flourish. On this standard, happiness is both possible and desirable.
2) Because this standard is based on actual facts about what a living, breathing, thinking human being can do and needs to do, there are no inherent conflicts within a person’s soul.
On this view, emotions are an important alert that there is a value at stake. When emotions conflict, they are alerting you to an internal contradiction in your goals and values that needs to be found and corrected, if you want to flourish.
But conflict is wearing. It is much better to avoid conflicts between your goals by using an objective test for them when you set them. Here are my three tests for a goal:
- Does it objectively achieve values needed for human life (deep rational values) in some way — is it pro-life?
- Is it achievable by you by your effort — i.e., is it possible to you?
- Is it worth the effort relative to the other goals you have set — is it a high enough priority?
A goal like “feel good” or “be happy” doesn’t meet the first two tests.
First, such a “goal” does not actually direct you to any specific values. Feeling good or being happy is a consequence of achieving life-supporting goals. So it’s circular.
But worse, when you set “feeling good” as a goal, every time you feel bad, you’ll feel doubly bad, because the implication is that you are doing something wrong, because you are failing at your goal of “feeling good.”
But bad feelings are not “bad” for you. They are alerts — important alerts about your values. You can’t flourish without them. If you try to eliminate bad feelings, you get yourself into trouble. You either become repressed (and can’t feel good feelings, either), or you turn to drugs or other mind-altering experiences in lieu of doing the work of achieving values. Without a willingness to experience “bad” feelings, you cannot flourish.
Second, how you feel is not under your direct control. Success doesn’t always bring joy, even if achieving the goal is objectively good for you. The joy you would normally feel can be covered up by emotions coming from “old baggage,” such as limiting beliefs like “I’m never good enough” and the like. Or the joy you would normally feel can be undercut by conflict, if the goal you achieved turns out to be incompatible with some other big value.
For these reasons, you are setting yourself up for failure if you set “feeling good” or “being happy” as your goal. If you aim at this outcome directly, you will fail.
That said, the desire to be happier is a great source of motivation for making life changes that can lead to happiness. It is certainly worth it to influence this outcome.