What makes you happy? What brings you that feeling of being content? It seems a simple question but one that can be difficult to answer. How often do you find yourself feeling happy or satisfied with your lot in life? Many of us are working towards things in life which we hope will make us happy; a promotion, getting married, earning more money, achieving that fitness goal or sporting victory. Goals are good. A focus and a vision are good. However, it can be easy to pin your happiness on achieving these goals, on reaching the final destination. Of course the difficulty with this is that a) goals take time to reach fruition and b) life doesn't always work in the way we hope or plan for. So the question becomes; are you happy on the journey? If not, perhaps there’s some value in renegotiating your goals, or re-evaluating your journey.
A starting point might be to check your goals fit with your values in life. What is most important and meaningful to you? In ten years time, what will you need to have achieved in life to really feel happy and fulfilled? Values should determine what direction you want your life to take. Goals can then be set to help you along the way. In this way, should a goal fail, you retain an overall sense of where you want your life to head.
Now give some thought to your goals; are they realistic and achievable? If they are long term goals, can they be broken down at all? The point of this is not just to ensure you don’t set yourself up to fail, but to make sure there are points of success and celebration along the way. Being able to note progress can help us enjoy the here and now, rather than simply looking ahead all of the time.
Inevitably some goals will fall flat. Sometimes we will fall short, or fail to live up to our expectations. Sometimes life has other plans. So how can we usefully focus on goals, without setting ourselves up for failure and unhappiness? Again, this comes back to a commitment to our values, while holding a level of acceptance for our shortcomings, and the inevitability of pain along the way. As with many human experiences, if we were more able to simply accept them, without such a high level of judgement or evaluation, we would generally be happier people. If we are willing to accept pain and failure, without turning this in on ourselves; without using this as fuel for beating ourselves up, we would generally remain more resilient.
Finally, while working towards goals is admirable, there is much to be said for knowing what makes you happy in the here and now. What makes a good day; who do you need around you, what do you need to be doing? Equally, insight into what trips you up and places obstacles in your way to happiness is invaluable. Knowing these and managing these obstacles is a significant task in itself. For some people, this is a case of trying to achieve a work-life balance, of making time for friends and hobbies. For others, it is about taking the time for mindful moments day to day, to regain a sense of a balance and purpose. For some, it is a case of looking out for unhelpful patterns of thinking and that negative filter which turns life a bit grey.
Happiness is not a final destination we are working towards. We must actively work to experience it along the way. This is far easier said than done. In my experience, one of the downsides of being human, and of all of the complex cognitive and emotional experiences we are able to have, is that we are vulnerable to getting ourselves stuck in vicious cycles and traps. We can get in our own way when trying to be happy.
So by all means, have goals. But make sure they are in line with your own personal values in life. By all means, work towards them and look forward to the satisfaction they will bring. But take the time to mark the progress you are making and slow down enough to celebrate the little achievements. And in the mean-time, put as much energy into looking after your well-being in the here and now. If for no other reason, this will make sure you have the resilience you need for the journey ahead.