Concrete goals make you happier | David Stiernholm

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10 Jan

Concrete goals make you happier


Datum: 2023-01-10 08:00
A basket hoop viewed from below. In the background: a Californian sky and a mountain rim.

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.

Do this

But, if you want to take advan­tage of what Rudd et al found in their study, try this:

  1. 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.
  2. 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? 
  3. If they are more abstract than they per­haps should be, take a moment to rephrase them into some­thing more concrete.
  4. 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.)

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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.

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