Dr. Carl Simonton, under whom I trained at the Simonton Cancer Center, always impressed upon participants at his center’s cancer retreats that energy is essential to healing and that the act of pursuing goals is itself energizing. Setting goals helps us conceptualize our reasons for living. Once we have a purpose for being, we are more motivated to do whatever it takes to get well. The future and the present appear more positive when we set goals, and doing so also helps many people commit to engaging in healthy behaviors. Goals provide a sense of control over our lives and create mastery. Going after what we want means we believe our lives have value. Ultimately, goals help us live with vitality, presence, and intentionality.
Neuropsychology researcher Dr. Richard Davidson (2000) reports that working hard toward a goal and making progress to the point of expecting it to be realized serve to activate positive experiences and diminish anxiety and depression—and this is true even without actually achieving the goal.
Research psychologist Laura King (2001) found a positive correlation between journaling and goals. 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.
Further demonstrating the value of setting goals, research psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her team (et al. 2005) found that the happiest and healthiest people are deeply committed to lifelong goals. But there is a cautionary note to parents. Psychology researchers Dr. Andrew Elliot and Dr. Kennon Sheldon (Sheldon and Elliot 1999; Elliot and Sheldon 1998) point out that when children aim for goals that are set by their parents, and pursue those goals only to please them, they find no meaning, purpose, or joy in the activities they undertake to achieve those goals. Goals that result in health benefits must be connected to personal aspirations.
A key understanding about the health benefits of goals, one that may seem surprising, is that reaching them is unimportant. The value lies in having goals and pursuing them.
Davidson, R. Anxiety, Depression, and Emotion. 2000. New York, Oxford University Press, USA.
Elliot A and Sheldon K. Avoidance personal goals and the personality-illness relationship. J. of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998;75:1282-1299.
King L. The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2001;27:798-807.
Lyubomirsky S, Sheldon K, and Schkade D. Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 2005;9:111-131.
Sheldon K and Elliot A. Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-concordance model. J of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999;76:546-557.