Smarter goals for more happiness

by Scott Crabtree

It’s that time again: New Year’s resolutions.

The science of happiness tells us New Year’s resolutions are a worthwhile ritual. Goals are vital to motivation, engagement, and happiness, at work and beyond. Statistics suggest that people who explicitly set goals are ten times more likely to reach them. Still, while up to 62% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only about 8% realize them. Why this low percentage?

Science – and my own experiences – indicate that there are many factors contributing to success when it comes to New Year’s resolutions and other goals. Willpower, the opportunity to draw upon our strengths, and the celebration of progress and milestones are all among those factors.

But let’s start at the beginning of the process: Setting good goals.

Good goals are SMART goals.

Good goals set you up for success. They motivate you, give you clarity about your next steps, and help you determine when you have reached them. Here is a set of useful criteria and questions to help you see whether your goals are good goals, easy to remember by the acronym SMART:

  1. Specific. What exact positive outcome do I want to accomplish?
  2. Measurable. How will I know when I reached this goal? Can I set clear milestones along the way?
  3. Attainable. Can I realistically get there? If not, can I make it more achievable?
  4. Relevant. Do I truly care about this goal? What difference will it make in my life?
  5. Timely. What is my timeline for reaching this goal?


Not-so-smart goal: “I want to be happier at work.” (The idea is very smart, just not the way it is expressed in this goal statement!)
Smart goal: “By September 1, 2014, I will transition into a position where I use my design and programming strengths to create a mobile phone video game.”

Not-so-smart goal: “I want to become a better team leader.”
Smart goal: “By the end of 2014, I will complete at least two classes that give me the tools and confidence to more effectively lead my team. I will apply what I learn to earn 90% positive feedback from my team in employee surveys.”

Beyond SMART: Meaningful goals.

Beyond being SMART, it also helps tremendously if your goals are personally important to you. In a number of studies, professor of psychology Eva Pomerantz and her colleagues found that when we are invested in our goals, we reap several benefits including engagement, resilience, confidence, and happiness, all of which also support us in reaching our goals.

This is often more challenging when we are given goals for the year by our team leaders or managers. If you don’t see the purpose of a given goal, ask your boss to help you understand its impact so it has more meaning and emotional appeal to you. Vice versa, if you are a leader in your organization, take time to help your team see how their goals fit into the bigger vision.

As Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile and others have shown, progress toward clear and meaningful goals is a huge boost of happiness and engagement at work. So create goals with milestones. Celebrate and savor progress along the way.

For bonus points, share your goals with your colleagues, team members, your manager(s), friends or family to get accountability and support – or share them with the Happy Brain Science community on Twitter or Facebook.

(Photo by Timothy K. Hamilton on Flickr.)

Scott Crabtree

As the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science, Scott Crabtree empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work.

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