Can Goal Setting be Contributing to Depression?

What if we stopped goal setting?

From birth, we have goals in place. Goals are set for us before we can even set them for ourselves. We start school with the intention of getting from one grade to the next. The goal of Kindergarten is to get into first grade. Upon completing grade school you attend middle school followed by high school. Completing each grade with the purpose to be accepted into a good college. You go to college and then maybe graduate school while ultimately working to get a good job. Finally, graduation, you join the “real world”. You get a job and start working towards more goals. You have a quota to make or a project to complete and upon completion there is always more. Meanwhile, the big goal is on the horizon – the “success” you’re working toward. But does it ever arrive?

When does it end? Do you wake up one day and say, “I’ve arrived!”. When will you feel successful? When will you reach that ultimate goal you keep working toward? 

What if goal setting is a lose-lose proposition? Think about any goal you’ve set. When you reached that goal, did it change your life? Did you become happier for having reached it? Inevitably, we set goals with the idea that when we achieve that goal, when we get that thing, or accomplish that goal we will make it and finally be happy. However, one of two things typically happens. We either reach our goal, only to find that nothing has changed and so we feel the need to set yet another goal. Or, we don’t reach our goal at all and instead gain the inevitable feeling of failure and loss. In either case, what was truly accomplished?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for the complete absence of goals or aspirations, but what if we looked at goal setting differently. What if goals were set as guide posts for how we want to live our life, instead of a destination to reach or a milestone to accomplish. In setting that goal, what if we were conscious of the process of working towards that goal and how the process would make us feel. Would we be happy to work towards and work on that goal regardless of the outcome. Imagine being happy working towards a goal. The outcome becomes almost irrelevant and we are certain to learn a great deal along the way.

In my “past life” I had a great corporate job. The pay was incredible but I was miserable. Originally, I set out with a goal of getting this job because I thought the money would bring me happiness. I thought if I made money, I could buy the house I wanted and the car I wanted and finally travel. The money made that easy but none of it made me happy. I chased goal after goal until I was broken, until chasing was all there was. There wasn’t a guiding, higher objective I just wanted to reach yet another goal, reap the short term rewards and set another. It wasn’t sustainable.

I can look back on my life and see times when I struggled and connect that to a goal that I didn’t, or DID reach. The let down and disappointment in reaching a goal that I thought would make me happy was the worst. Ironically, it was the goals I did reach, not the ones I didn’t, that lead to the worst times. Reaching a goal and being smacked with the realization that it didn’t – couldn’t – change my life was the worst. I know I’m not alone in that feeling.

When I started Project Helping, I didn’t do it with the goal to grow it to a certain size. I didn’t want to raise “X” amount of money or help “X” number of people. My intention was to provide people with the same experience – the same “ah-ha” moment I gained. To provide people the opportunity to feel what I did the first time I volunteered would be incredible. Retirement or making a certain amount of money was never at the forefront of my mind. A few simple guiding principals – goals per se – help me make decisions. These principles give me a tremendous amount of purpose and drive in my life:

  1. Be a great Dad. I have little ones and they are amazing. Exhausting, but amazing. I don’t have a preconceived notion of what my kids should accomplish or be, I want them to be happy, kind, and work hard. That’s it. Everything I do it to help show them how to find their passion in life and live in that passion. Nothing more.
  2. Be a great husband. My wife is the best person I know. I don’t have a goal of being married for “X” number of years. At this point, I don’t have any concept to what a “good” marriage or what a “bad” marriage is. If I do everything I can, every day to be the best husband I can be, the rest will work itself out.
  3. I want to continue to help as many people as we can at Project Helping. Every decision that I and we make is with that mission in mind. How can we help more people and make sure we are around for a long time to deliver our innovative solution to anyone and everyone who needs our help.

Those are my goals. I love working towards them a little more every day. I will never “reach” those goals, but I will also never NOT reach those goals (yes, that’s a double negative). That’s the beauty of it. I have strong guideposts that I am adamant about working towards and they are all I need to make every decision I will need to make in my life.

Think about your goals. Think about how you are setting them and why you are setting them. Try reframing your goals so that you can enjoy EVERY SINGLE STEP of the process of working towards them. Then see if it makes the smallest impact on your happiness, as it did mine.




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