Concrete goals make you happier
Datum: 2023-01-10 08:00
In our work we often set goals we wish to achieve — for the whole year, to reach by the end of the month, or perhaps from one day to the next. The purpose of doing so is partly to develop into what we ourselves (or our management) wish to become, and partly to motivate us to ”do a good job” (however we choose to define that).
For you who prefer listening to reading, this post is also available as an episode of the “Done!” podcast:
There are many opinions and ideas regarding how to formulate goals and what constitutes a ”good goal”. I often refer to the widely recognized rule-of-thumb that goals should be ”SMART” (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound) in order to in the best way possible support us in our daily work.
Ambiguous or clear?
Some do not think it is very important how you formulate your goals, and I met a CEO not too long ago who thought goals were overrated since you never really know if you will reach them anyway (and since the employees feel so down when you don’t). I will not deny that I am an avid fan of clearly formulated goals and there is now a recently done study that puts emphasis on how much more effective clear and concrete goals are compared to ambiguous or abstract ones in terms of helping us grow and progress.
He who does (concrete) good for others, becomes happier
In the article “Getting the most out of giving: Concretely framing a prosocial goal maximizes happiness” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 54, September 2014, Pages 11 – 24), the researchers Rudd, Aaker and Norton present the results from six different experiments.
The question asked was: If we become happier by doing good things for others — do we become more, less or equally happy when our goal is to make someone smile (which is a concrete goal) compared to attempting to make someone happy in general (which is an abstract goal)?
I am aware of that most of the goals we are responsible for attaining at work concern matters which are very different from counting smiles on our colleagues’ faces, but for anyone whose work for example concerns satisfying customers, this parallel of ”getting a smile from the customer” (concrete) versus ”happier customers” (abstract) will suffice to illustrate how the goals differ.
The six experiments
In the first three experiments, half of the participants were asked to do something during the next 24 hours that made someone else smile (concrete), and the other half were asked to do something that made someone else happy (abstract). The researchers found that the participants with the concrete goal felt a greater sense of accomplishment than those who were asked to achieve the abstract goal, partly because it was easier for them to determine for certain if they had achieved their objective or not. It was easy to know that the concrete goal had been reached and they could thus ”check it off”.
In the forth experiment, they tested if this stands true for other kinds of goals as well by asking half the participants to do something that increases the amount of garbage they recycled (concrete) and half of the group to do something that contributes to a more sustainable society (abstract). The effect was the same in this experiment as well — those given the concrete goal felt a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
What’s the point?
But is it relevant and actually important that the doer feels satisfaction and happiness due to reaching the goals? Does it really matter? Isn’t it just a job that needs doing? Well yes, it does matter, especially when it comes to goals which are dependent on our own achievement. If we use interacting with our clients as an example; wouldn’t you say that we ”reach this goal” to a greater extent if we feel genuinely happy, enthusiastic and hopeful when meeting our client, rather than sulky, discouraged and apathetic?
Most are doubtful at first
The purpose of experiment number 5 was to ensure that the results thus far were accurate, and the conclusion drawn from experiment number 6 was most interesting, if you ask me: most of the participants assumed that it would not matter if the goals were abstract or concrete, which the previous experiments proved inaccurate.
So, if you still feel skeptical towards these results, you are not the only one doubting their validity.
But, if you want to take advantage of what Rudd et al found in their study, try this:
- Remind yourself of what goals you are responsible for achieving in the nearest future. If you need to, get them out so that you have them in front of you.
- Be honest with yourself and reevaluate them. Are they so concretely formulated that it is easy to determine when you have reached them or not?
- If they are more abstract than they perhaps should be, take a moment to rephrase them into something more concrete.
- If you need to check in with your boss or someone else and make sure that the goals are still accurate even though you have rephrased them, determine when and how you will do so. Perhaps you have a meeting sometime soon anyway, which could be a good time to bring them up?
Increase your motivation
If you formulate your goals as concretely as you can, hence making it easy to know when you have reached them, you will feel more zealous while working towards them and a greater satisfaction when attaining them. You will feel more motivated to get your work done, and feel a sense of accomplishment more frequently, which will make you happier while at work.
How have you made things more clear?
How have you made your goals more concrete — especially if you are not in a managing position? Tell me!
(Being concrete is valuable in other areas as well. I found five ways in which to be more concrete.)
If you want more tips on how to create good structure at work, there are many ways to get that from me - in podcasts, videos, books, talks and other formats.