Happiness Mentor

The Science of Achieving Your Goals

A few years ago, I went back to school to get a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Until that point, I’d been working as a professional coach setting goals with clients, but my knowledge on that subject was limited to what I could find in self-help books, which wasn’t much. At Penn, I learned that there is a science to goal-setting and goal pursuit, and even that there is a well-validated theory called “Goal Setting Theory.” I also learned that there is a scientific approach to goal-setting that we can all use to maximize our chances of success. In early 2009, I published the first evidence-based book on goal-setting and how it intersects with the science of well-being, Creating Your Best Life. In it, I wove together all of the research I had found on creating success and taught readers how to apply it to their own lives. Following are some of the most important tips I can pass along to get you going:

Goal Setting Strategy #1: Take Your Emotional Temperature


There is conclusive evidence that success in life flows from being happy first – we don’t get happier because we reach our goals, we reach our goals because we start in an emotionally flourishing place. If you are pessimistic, depressed or feel that the glass is always half-empty, find ways to deliberately intervene on your mood daily until you develop the habits of gratitude, mindfulness and savoring.


Goal Setting Strategy #2: Define Your Purpose


In Japan, the word for purpose is ikigai, or “that which I wake up for”. Goals that align with your life’s purpose are always easier to connect with and pursue when the going gets tough.

Goal Setting Strategy #3: Ask Yourself, “So what?”


Intrinsic goals are goals that we set for ourselves, and that no one else has set for us. I ask clients the “so what?” question when they share their goals with me because I’m trying to find out the meaning behind the goal, and why their lives will be more fulfilling if the goal is achieved. When we pursue paths that call us, we are happier both in the pursuit and accomplishment of those goals.

Goal Setting Strategy #4: Write Your 10-year Plan for Your Life


For three days, write for 20 minutes about your future life as if everything has gone as you want, and you are living the life of your dreams. Doing this simple writing exercise, known as “Best Possible Future Self,” has been found to enhance well-being, increase hope, create commitment to goals, and clarify whether or not some goals need to be changed or eliminated because they conflict with other goals. (People who do this have even been found to save more money because they can see their future more clearly and feel more connected with who they want to become.

Goal Setting Strategy #5: Set Hard Goals That Involve Taking Risks


At the end of every day, whether we know it or not, we scan our days for highlights and things we are proud of. It’s been found that the things we’ve pursued outside our comfort zone, and that involve trying to “master” something important to us, give us “authentic self-esteem.” The more we do this, the more we believe in ourselves.

Goal Setting Strategy #6: Change Your Passwords to Help You Achieve Goals


We are primed all day, every day, by the words, aromas, sounds and sights around us, and they either cause us to behave in goal-directed ways or not. If you change all of your passwords to reinforce a goal you are trying to accomplish, (for example, GradWithHonors1 or Bestseller2014) or a character trait you are seeking to adopt, you will unconsciously find ways to make those things happen because the “primes” are always working on your thoughts.

Caroline Adams Miller is the bestselling author of Creating Your Best Life. She is on the advisory board at Happify and blogs about happiness, success and thriving at carolinemiller.com.

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