How to Choose Goals That Make You Come Alive

Find out how well-being helps you achieve your goals.



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As far as goals go, hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of the more ambitious ones. When you ask people how they did it—something I’ve been doing for the past two years as a journalist—they don’t credit willpower. Instead, they say that pursuing the goal made them feel fully alive.

Perhaps you have heard the advice to choose goals that make you feel alive, but didn’t know where to begin. If so, the work of positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania could help.

Seligman might call feeling fully alive “flourishing.” To flourish, you need to cultivate five different elements of well-being, ranging from positive emotions to a sense of meaning. As Seligman told me, he believes that the more of these elements you experience as you pursue a goal, the more likely you are to stick with it—whether your goal is to write a novel, start a new career, or just exercise more.

Positive emotions
Positive emotions, the first component of flourishing, range from pleasure and comfort to enthusiasm and awe. For example, PCT hiker Andy Dischekenyan described moments of bliss outdoors: “The birdsongs, the crisp air, the wind dancing through the trees, the sun kissing my face as it sets…sleeping under a blanket of a trillion stars.”

It was one such moment that helped him through his lowest period on the trail. One night, he was exhausted, in pain, and wanted to stop—but then he found a beautiful campsite. “While watching the sunset, the pain from my knee, my anger and my fears, all washed away. My smile returned. Everything was okay once more,” he says.

“Positive emotions can help turn threat-related thoughts (‘There’s no way I can do this’) into optimistic thoughts (‘I have the resources to do this’),” says Christian Waugh of Wake Forest University. They accomplish this by promoting stress responses that are helpful. For example, as research by Judith Moskowitz and her colleagues has demonstrated, experiencing positive emotions in the midst of stress helps replenish resources that are typically depleted by stress, allowing people to keep up their normal roles and activities.

Positive emotions also promote problem solving and creative thinking, according to Barbara Frederickson and Christine Branigan. They broaden the scope of our attention and inspire novel thoughts and actions, which over time allows us to develop more skills and resources.

So if the route to your goal offers you moments of positive emotion, you might stick to it better. If you are wondering if you should revisit that half-complete novel in your desk drawer, consider whether the act of writing—thinking of the perfect phrase or finishing a chapter—gives you pleasure or satisfaction.

Engagement is the state of flow, an experience when you are completely absorbed and time seems to stand still or pass in a flash. Hiker Mandie Carter describes the flow state in her online journal.

“We gave the trail all we had…I was in a sort of transcendental meditation thing…thoughts were woven together like lace over the fabric of my breathing. My feet made a rhythmic crunch crunch crunch crunch and over top of that was my breath, in, in, ouuut…in, in, ouuut.”

Even during a 20-mile uphill struggle, the miles seemed to pass unnoticed for Mandie. “I can’t really tell you much about this section,” she writes.

The flow state does seem to help our performance “mainly by facilitating the focus of attention for an extended period,” says Brian Bruya, the editor of Effortless Attention.

Experiencing flow also encourages us to keep pursuing a goal. “When the activity is difficult and takes a long time to achieve the goal, it helps to experience flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, told me. He explained: If your goal is to perfect your baseball game and you experience flow from playing baseball, you will continue to play baseball even if a particular game is not enjoyable.

Approach your goals, then, in a way that maximizes your chances of experiencing flow. Flow is most likely to occur when the challenge of what you are doing matches your skill level. If you are a new runner training for a marathon, don’t push yourself to sprint hills on the first day. Wait until you are a more skilled runner for that challenge.

Hiker Caleb Miller knows something about relationships on the PCT. He met a woman at mile 0 and married her at mile 445. Their partnership pushed him to hike farther than he had planned. “I didn’t realize how crucial the camaraderie would be, how powerful it is in keeping you going,” he says in the memoir his wife wrote about their hike.

“There is a good deal of research that social support (the tangible, informational, or emotional help) we receive from others is an integral part of reaching one’s goals,” says Shelly Gable of UC Santa Barbara.

A 2008 study demonstrates how social support helps when we encounter hurdles. “We showed that when a friend was actually present, or when participants merely thought of a supportive significant other, a steep hill looked less steep. This suggests that people rely on close others when considering how difficult tackling a given environment might be,” says lead author Simone Schnall.

Consider how to strengthen your connection to others as you pursue your goal: If you want to lose weight, think about joining a support group like Weight Watchers or recruiting friends to join you at healthy restaurants.

Meaning is belonging to, and serving, something that you believe is bigger than the self. Hiker Natalie Chudacoff, who works as a director at a nonprofit science camp, called the PCT “grad school.” On trail, she says, “I would be learning and living the goals I wanted to have accomplished to make myself a better and more qualified camp director.”

With a couple hundred miles to go in the hike, she had had enough. So she told herself that this part of the hike was “final exams.” “Like grad school, you don’t quit because finals are hard,” she told me. Thinking of her larger purpose—serving the youth who attend her camp—helped her finish.

“Research in psychology shows that meaning is a strong motivating factor,” says Evgeny Osin, of Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics.

In yet another study on how we perceive hills, researchers found that people with a greater sense of purpose thought the same hill required less effort to ascend and wasn’t as steep.

So reflect on whether your goal serves a larger purpose. If you want to start your own business, do you believe your product contributes to the greater good of society? Alternatively, think about how you can add meaning to your goal: Will you earmark a percentage of your profits for charity? 

In her PCT guidebook, Jackie McDonnell wrote that “the sense of accomplishment is overwhelming” during a PCT hike. She elaborated over email: “The place where we go to sleep is 50 miles from the place where we woke up yesterday morning….And we WALKED here. You can’t help but feel powerful when this is your way of life.”

Where does that sense of accomplishment, success, and mastery that Jackie describes come from? “The main answer is intrinsic motivation,” says Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri.

People who have intrinsic motivation, who pursue a goal for its own sake, tend to exhibit more perseverance and resilience, says Patty O’Grady of the University of Tampa. In one study, Sheldon found that “people are most likely to be effective when they pursue goals that either engage their natural interests or express their authentic personal values.”

When you think about why you are pursuing a goal, is your first thought of an intrinsic reward? Do you want to learn Spanish because you find the language beautiful? Or are you learning Spanish for an extrinsic reward, say, the pay raise your company gives to Spanish speakers?

Seligman’s framework may be helpful for thinking about goals, but it is not a magic formula. Mandie, the hiker who experienced flow, left the trail short of her goal, at mile 800. Indeed, psychologists caution that some elements of well-being can work against us. For example, experiencing positive emotion during goal pursuit might make it harder to achieve a goal, because feeling good about our progress can make us reduce our effort.

Many of the PCT hikers I interviewed said the hike was one of the best experiences of their lives. By choosing goals that nourish different aspects of our well-being, the rest of us can hope to feel the same.

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