Happiness is a state that people, regardless of nationality or culture, want to achieve. In fact, when you ask parents of newborns what hopes they have for their child, universally they will include happiness as a goal.
While happiness is something we all strive for, it tends to be elusive. The equation of money, talent and success leading to happiness does not hold true. We can all site examples of many highly successful, rich, talented and successful people who are unhappy and unfulfilled.
Many may ask, what can we do to be happy? While specific strategies to cultivate happiness are important, it is also imperative to focus on the content of goals you choose to bring you happiness. The type of aspiration you choose will not only affect your level of happiness, but also your overall well-being and physical health.
Researchers have found that people generally identify two types of aspirations in their pursuit of happiness: intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Intrinsic goals relate to personal growth, enhancing personal relationships and community connectedness. Extrinsic aspirations include financial success, social recognition and appearance.
While both of these types of aspirations can be worthy goals, research has shown that intrinsic aspirations are more closely tied to happiness. For example, researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of Missouri surveyed students about their goals and well-being during college and a year post-graduation.
They found that the graduates who pursued goals that contained mostly intrinsic content reported greater levels of happiness and overall well-being during and after college. In contrast, the subjects who had focused on goals with primarily extrinsic content during and after college reported lower level of well-being and happiness. Of note is the fact that regardless of how achievable the goals were or how sure the participants were that they could achieve the goals, intrinsic goals consistently lead to greater sense of well-being.
More research by Tim Kasser, Richard Ryan and Ken Sheldon found that extrinsic goals not only yield less happiness and well-being, but are also associated with a host of other negative conditions. These researchers found that individuals who endorse extrinsic aspirations as their top priorities report higher levels of anxiety, depression, narcissism, psychosomatic symptoms, conduct disorder, high-risk behaviors and lower levels of self-actualization, self-esteem and social functioning.
It seems that when we consistently pick extrinsic goals, we do not achieve the happiness we strive for even when we meet our goals. It appears that many of those pursuing and achieving primarily extrinsic goals are left feeling unhappy or unfilled, or worse, result in depression, anxiety or a host of other negative conditions.
Even if extrinsic goals do not lead to happiness, they have an important role in our lives. Achieving extrinsic goals can lead to financial success, prestige, financial security and decrease stress related to finances. In addition, accomplishing extrinsic goals, such as getting a higher-paying job with more free time, can allow for the pursuit of intrinsic goals such as spending time with family who live far away, nurturing your passion for painting and pursuing charity work. However, it is important to note that pursuing extrinsic goals, without any focus on intrinisc ones, will yield little happiness and potentially negative emotional and behavior states.
The best course of action is to appreciate the role extrinsic goals play in allowing you to pursue intrinsic aspirations, which have been proven to enhance happiness and well-being.
When seeking happiness, make certain that your top priorities of aspirations include intrinsic goals. Maintaining a focus on intrinsic goals, such as striving for meaningful relationships, personal growth and community contributions, will lead to a deeper sense of well-being and happiness.
Overall a set of aspirations that prioritizes intrinsic goals, along with the requisite extrinsic ones, will in the end, help you achieve the happiness you are seeking. In short, when looking for happiness, look inward and let aspirations relating to self-acceptance, meaningful connectedness and community contributions, guide you.
Wishing you happiness ahead!
— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.