Community//

This One Small Change Can Boost Long-Term Happiness

In this case, less is more.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Think about your lifelong dreams. Maybe you want to build a company from the ground up. Maybe you want the corner office at a major corporation. Maybe you want to climb to the top of Mount Everest, or travel to every country in the world.

While it’s fun to dream big — it inspires us and gives us something to work towards — it turns out that we really benefit from smaller, more actionable goals, or what we at Thrive Global call “microsteps.”

A new study by the University of Basel found that when people set goals for themselves that they believed to be attainable, they reported greater life satisfaction later on — regardless of whether they had actually reached those goals.

The study involved 973 individuals between the ages of 18 and 92. Participants were asked to assess the attainability and importance of goals across 10 categories: health, community, personal growth, social relationships, fame, image, wealth, family, responsibility/care for younger generations, and work. More than half of the participants were interviewed again two and four years later.

Researchers found that when people perceived their goals to be attainable, they tended to have improved well-being. This was true regardless of how important they ranked their goal and whether or not they had achieved the goal, causing researchers to infer that people are most satisfied when they feel that they are capable of accomplishing what they set their mind to.

Interestingly, the study showed that two specific categories of goal-setting — social relationships and health — actually predicted achievement in those areas. People who set goals in these areas were more likely to report feeling positively about them.

In short, when it comes to setting goals, your perception of the goal is more important than the goal itself — at least in terms of finding happiness.

“It is not the concrete attainment that we assessed, but whether people thought they could attain their goals. As the results of our study have shown, it was goal attainability, compared to goal importance, that had a stronger and more robust effect on later well-being. I would conclude that it is important to have goals that you perceive as attainable,” Janina Bühler, a Ph.D. student and lead author on the study, tells Thrive.

The study has interesting applications for the power of microsteps in our daily lives. Too often, we look only at where we want to be 10 years — or even 10 months — down the line, and ignore what we can do today to bring us one step closer to that dream. (New Year’s resolutions are a great example of this!)

In reality, it’s microsteps — those little changes you can make in your life every single day — that will eventually get you to where you want to be.

“It is essential to adjust the importance and the attainability of goals, and to adapt this balance to the current circumstances,” Bühler says. “What drives well-being is to have goals that you perceive as attainable. This, in turn, deliberates action and fosters personal development.”

Shifting your focus to smaller, more attainable goals will not only help you actually accomplish your desires, it will also give you a greater sense of control in your life — and likely boost your happiness along the way.

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