Why achieving your goals doesn't make you happy

You might be a little surprised to see me, the goal-nerd herself, saying that achieving your goals doesn't make you happy.

After all, I encourage you to want it all and go for your big dreams and goals!

But the sad truth is that sometimes, if you achieve your goal, you still won't be satisfied.

People often come to me with goals to lose weight. Or earn a certain amount of money.

Maybe those are your goals too.

Now, I’m a driven person. I get the temptation to set targets that are super specific and take great pride in "achievement" (sometimes too much so - and that's a story for another day).

But here's the reality: metrics aren’t actually motivating.

Think about the SMART goals we were taught to set in high school career planning class, and in our corporate goal training.

Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Realistic. Time-based.

Boring. Uninspired. And ineffective, if we're being honest.

When we only set goals based on a number or target, it’s just not motivating. Worse, we risk putting in all the effort to achieve it only to find ourselves still unsatisfied and at that point, utterly confused.

Achieving goals means we need to change behaviour and to change behaviour, there needs to be motivation.

This comes down to the basic difference between the two types of motivators – extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivators are external rewards, or the drive to avoid punishment. Things like promotions, titles, dollars, and numbers on a scale. You might work to avoid getting in trouble with your boss, or a failing grade.

Being motivated extrinsically means we change our behaviour not because we enjoy it or but in order to get something in return or avoid something we don't want.

Intrinsic motivators are things that come from inside – things like joy, happiness, love, security, connection. Being motivated intrinsically means that we engage in the behaviour because the behaviour itself is rewarding. We enjoy the activity or action for its own sake, not just for the outcome.

There are situations where extrinsic motivators are beneficial, and they are tools you can certainly use to increase your goal progress.

But generally speaking, psychology research shows that intrinsic motivation the motivation that comes from within - is much more effective.

Over the long-term, intrinsic motivators are more powerful - wanting to change our behaviour or take action for the sake of the action. In other words, thinking only about the straight dollars, grades, numbers and metric rewards isn't enough.

Here's an example.

Let me ask you this:

What inspires you to get out of bed at 5 am?

Does imagining numbers on a scale work to get you to the gym? Maybe. But probably not. And definitely not consistently.

What about imagining how good you feel after a workout? Or how fun it will be to meet your friend for a run? These are intrinsic motivators.

The potential for long-term motivation and success is SO much higher with those two intrinsic motivators.

How about waking up at 5am to catch a flight to your bucket-list destination? Heck YES! That's easy!

Or how about waking up early after only a few hours of sleep to see a much-loved friend for brunchNo problem.

But pushing through that 3 o clock energy dip to make those sales calls you've been avoiding all day? Pretty much impossible.

All this is on top of this fact: it's never about the money, the weight, the title. It's about how you want to FEEL and what you want to experience in the process of achieving your goal.

Wanting money for the sake of money won't make you happy. Money is never about money. Instead, it's about being able to be generous with money. It's about being able to buy convenience, flexibility, and stability - or whatever it is you value intrinsically.

Losing weight is not about a number on the scale. It's about finding and feeling your groove on the dance floor, or the pride and tears you feel when that race medal is placed around your neck.

It's about feeling confident in your favourite jeans, or hiking to the top of that mountain this summer without stopping every 5 minutes.

And if all you focus on are the numbers - weight, personal bests, dollars, titles, people managed - you'll miss the point entirely.

The worst part? Even if you DO achieve your goal, you will end up feeling empty - and extra confused as to why you still aren't happy when you achieved your goals.

The more you can connect your goals to something that’s motivated intrinsically instead of extrinsically, the better.

The more likely you are to achieve them. And the more likely you are to feel truly happy and fulfilled when you achieve your goal. 

Here’s a few examples of how to connect your goals to intrinsic motivators:

If you can make your workouts fun – say by meeting a friend, or going to a spin class that you love the soundtrack too, you’ll be WAY more motivated.

If you can add your love for learning to your ability to earn an income, that income is going to come way easier.

If you can visualize and imagine what it feels like to lead a team, and start being the one to solve problems for your colleagues today, your promotion is a lot more likely to happen.

Connect the intrinsic motivator first, and the result – the reward – will naturally come.

Here are some powerful questions you can ask yourself to help you add intrinsic motivation to your goals:

First, think of your goal. Then ask yourself:

  • This goal matters and is important to me because:

  • Working towards and accomplishing this goal will make me feel _____ (insert desired emotions/feelings)

Then, imagine you've achieved your goal. Ask yourself:

  • How long after I've achieved my goal will I be happy?

That last question is a zinger. You may discover that it will still take another step AFTER you achieve your goal in order to be truly satisfied. If that's the case, you need to do two things:

1) Figure out what you need in this moment, today, to bring satisfaction to that. There's always something small you can do in the day or week to bring you happiness and satisfaction, now.

2) Decide in which moment you WILL be truly happy and satisfied - and then change your goals to THAT!

You might find that you'll be satisfied after you see your mom cross the race finish line with you and that will help you recognize that your goal is not in fact a specific time milestone, but instead, what will motivate you and keep you going is imagining and working towards that moment that you see your MOM cross the finish line too.

Want to know what's ironic about this whole process? Don’t be surprised if the reward you thought you wanted isn’t what makes you happier.

Who you become and the experiences you gain through the process of achieving your goals is what gives the most joy and meaning in your life.

And don't let any number, metric, dollar value, grade, or punishment ever let you forget that.

Lisa Michaud

Success Coach

PS. I'm going live tonight to go WAY more in depth on this topic on Facebook live HERE.

Join me every Tuesday night between 8:30 pm and 9:30 pm PST on Facebook live HERE or Instagram HERE for inspiration, wisdom, tools, insights and all your questions answered.

See you tonight!