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Improve Health and Happiness by Setting and Pursuing Goals

Goals Energize Us.

During my three years at the Simonton Cancer Center, we always impressed upon patients that energy is essential to healing and that the act of pursuing goals can be extremely energizing. Setting goals helps us conceptualize our reasons for living and get clarity on what gives our lives meaning and purpose. In terms of health, it is important to be able to wake up in the morning and look forward to spending the day pursuing a goal that is important to us.  For those of us living with chronic medical conditions, once we have a purpose for being, we are more motivated to do whatever it takes to get well. In other words, the will to live is strengthened by working toward something. The future and the present appear more positive when we set goals. Setting goals helps many people commit to engaging in healthy behaviors. Goals provide a sense of control over our lives and create environmental mastery rather than complacency. Going after what we want means we believe our lives have value. The single most important reason to have goals is that they help us to live with more aliveness, presence, and intentionality.

 Working toward personally valued goals improves health and happiness.

Research psychologist Laura King

O. Carl Simonton, M.D.

found that, after just a few weeks, people in her study who spent twenty minutes a day journaling about their most deeply held goals reported less depression and fewer medical complaints than people who spent twenty minutes a day simply recording the details of their daily lives in a diary. Although achieving the goal has its own benefits, the act of working toward it is what is most conducive to health.

Think of a time in your life when you lacked goals. How did you feel? Did you lack enthusiasm for life? Was your energy low? Compare that with a time in your life when you had passion to pursue a goal. I would love to hear about your experiences.

4 replies
  1. John Bilorusky says:

    I like much of what is in your post, Larry, especially the part about the act of working toward the goal being what is most important. In my experience “toward” is more important than goal. That is, sometimes I may not be certain of a precise goal, but more the “general direction” in which I’m headed. Goals should always be able to change as we experience and learn more, and for that reason it is important to not get fixated on the goal. Indeed as you say elsewhere, it’s important to be attached to the outcome. So, having a sense of direction–the general vicinity that we’re moving TOWARD is probably most important. I first was alerted to this important distinction between “direction” as contrasted to “goal” by the writings of the early 20th century philosopher and progressive educator, John Dewey. I think he would appreciate many of your ideas.

    • Larry Berkelhammer says:

      John, we clearly are in agreement on this. I’m quite sure that when you said: “it’s important to be attached to the outcome,” you meant to say “important NOT to be attached to the outcome.” In fact, when we find that we have become attached to the outcome of our goals and endeavors, it is important to step back, breathe, and get in touch with how that goal lines up with our personal life values. By mindfully staying in touch with our deepest values, we can avoid becoming attached to the outcome of our goals.

  2. Kim says:

    Larry, thank you for a great post. I regularly journal and include goal setting, especially at the beginning of the year. I never thought of that practice as being good for my health! I’ll definitely continue to do so. What’s a good number of goals to set?

    • Larry Berkelhammer says:

      Kim,the number of goals is unimportant. What matters is the experience of working toward goals. Achieving the goals is less important than the process of working toward them. Working toward goals can be approached as a mindfulness practice.

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