Most of us suck at setting happiness goals. “I want to stop feeling so anxious.” As Russ Harris would say, that’s a dead person’s goal. A dead person can not have something because well, their dead.
There are two broad categories of goals: goals that move us away from something and goals that move us towards something. In my experience both as a GP and a coach, the most common goals that people set around mental health are ‘moving away’ goals. People want to stop feeling anxious, depressed, flat, stressed, burnt out or overwhelmed. At face value, these are great goals but, in actual fact, they are dead person goals.
Dr Marli Watt often uses the analogy of the uber driver. Moving away goals are the equivalent of you getting into an uber and telling the driver, “take me away from here.” The problems here are two fold. Firstly, you run the risk of moving, but in the wrong direction. Not all progress is good progress. Secondly, if the motivation is to move away from something unpleasant, often people start and do make some progress. However, the progress is short lived. Eventually people get to a point where they are far enough from the starting point, that the drive to keep going is no longer there. This leads to yo-yoing between where they started and the small bit of progress they made.
For example, someone who wants to stop feeling anxious may start exercising daily. After a few weeks, they may start to experience less anxiety. As the goal was to feel less anxious, the drive to keep exercising is lessened. It’s tempting to think to yourself, “Okay, I’m doing pretty well. Maybe I can put my feet up a little bit and relax.” This is the risky part. The exercise slows down and eventually stops. The anxiety gets worse again. Most people get into this cycle of oscillating between an unpleasant emotion, doing something about it and then stopping what they were doing because they start to feel better.
We need something to sustain our progress. This is the power of moving towards a goal. These are the goals that the living should set themselves. Instead of moving away from anxiety and depression, which is not self sustaining, why not move towards happiness, contentment and peace. A dead person can’t be happy because again, their dead.
The initial ‘moving towards’ goals that people come up with for their mental health are often feelings. Feelings are intangible, fleeting and impossible to measure. The next step is to figure out what you will be doing when you are feeling this way. What would a happy version of you be doing? Perhaps meditating for 20 minutes a day. Or expressing gratitude to a loved one every day. Aha! Now we have a goal! A goal that any dead person would envy.
When you achieve your goal, you can pick another one or keep that one going. It’s sustainable and there is potential for exponential growth.
So what are your happiness goals leading into the New Year? Just remember, don’t hail an uber and ask them to “take me away from here.” They may take you to the morgue.
Much love to you and of course, myself.
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