This is why I don’t set goals

By , August 11, 2014 6:26 am

Alternatively titled: I figured out the post “big event” blues

Wow. This is NOT the conclusion I was expecting to make when I started reading this article – “On the road to happiness, a pleasant surprise beats a sure thing” (pdf here).

Based on, yes, recent studies, this article mentions the theory that being surprised by an outcome has a bigger effect on your happiness than knowing the outcome in advance. A simple example is going to a movie and expecting to dislike it. If you end up liking the movie, you will have a higher happiness level than if you had gone thinking you’d like it, and ended up doing so. Interesting, right?

As I started reading the article I had two reactions: I need to lower my expectations for everything, and, what about the discontent of dreading something – doesn’t that downplay the overall happiness, even if you end up enjoying it?

Ha. Just read ahead, Kim. The article addresses that:

But this doesn’t mean that having low expectations is the path to happiness, because the model also shows that such pessimism leads to discontentment while you wait for an outcome. So if you make plans with a flaky friend and assume he’ll cancel, you’ll take a hit on your happiness in the meantime, even if you experience a boost when he shows up on time.

Ahh. Gotcha. That makes sense. But then what am I taking from this article other than something I probably already intuitively knew – that “these two factors — degree of surprise and overall expectation — play a dual role in determining our momentary well-being, although surprise matters more”?

This is where I was like, WHOA:

…while the idea behind the happiness equation isn’t new, the study is a “strong and interesting” piece of supportive evidence. But can we use this knowledge to boost our own well-being? Lowering expectations as a tactic has already been ruled out, but the study does hint at why you might not feel as elated after reaching an expected goal as you might think.

“People are always pursuing goals, and when they reach the goal, they don’t end up being as satisfied as they perceive they’d be–as if happiness is held out in front of us, and we never quite achieve it,” Loewenstein said.

On the other hand, he suggests that there might be some consolation in realizing that we are all hard-wired this way in order to keep us moving forward.

That… is so me. I am much happier when achieving a goal I was not expecting. Of course, I am thinking about this in regards to exercise related goals, but it could be applied to anything. 

But when I do a race and meet some time goal I didn’t even consider, it’s a much bigger (happier!) deal to me than if I did what I “knew” I could. Of course, I believe in training and not aiming for ridiculous goals, and I also believe in self confidence. So I am really just thinking about the times when I have completely surprised myself. 

This happened at my 5K PR from March of 2013. I had just PR’d a few weeks earlier in the 5K and was happy about that – I had been expecting/planning for it. I showed up at this other 5K thinking “why did I register for this?!” I didn’t have a plan, started out with a friend, then felt great and took off! I ended up taking 49 seconds off of the previous PR!

The element of surprise DID make me much happier. And it was not so much that I lowered my PR time – it was that I was expecting to, then felt great and did it! 

The same thing happened at Iron Girl yesterday. I picked a very aggressive (for me) time goal, not really being sure AT ALL if I could hit it. And when I did, it was such a nice surprise (ha, I think to everyone else, too)! It was much more rewarding to me than just going out there and doing what I “know” I could do. 


So back to the post title (and alternative, ha ha), this article made me think about how I am just not one to set many goals. That doesn’t drive/motivate me. And I really think this theory is a HUGE part of that. And a huge part of why you feel down after a big event (I mean, along with it being over and not being able to plan for it anymore and all that). 

Do you agree with this theory? Does a “surprise” outcome make you happier than an expected one?

21 Responses to “This is why I don’t set goals”

  1. Chaitali says:

    This is interesting. I’ve never seen it quantified like this before, though I guess it’s something we all know intuitively. I still like to set goals and work toward them because I’m worried I’d never get there otherwise! Then I wouldn’t have the surprise happiness or the anticipated happiness.

    • kilax says:

      That’s a good point – with some of these things, if you don’t ever set the goal of trying something, you might not give yourself the chance of being “surprised” by it! 🙂

  2. Heather says:

    So much truth here for me at least. Back in April I ran a half and was hoping to be around 2:30 and that was ambitious – I ran 2:25 and was blown away and so thrilled I bounced for days.

    This weekend I ran 2:11 which was just about where I’d hoped and I am proud, but definitely not blown away.

    • kilax says:

      Isn’t that nuts?! Our minds work in such interesting ways!

      I am happy you commented about your race! I was thinking about you last night and wondering how it went! Wasn’t 2:11 still a PR? 🙂

      • Heather says:

        Yes it was! I’m proud of how I did, it was a pretty big PR, but I’m not…blown away, which is funny because I was blown away when I hit 2:25. Why am I less impressed now?! Brains are weird!

  3. Erin says:

    Admitting I didn’t read the article and just basing my question on your summary: did they address at all how having a goal can also make your happiness take a hit while you’re striving to reach that goal? For example, if you have a goal and you’re so focused on reaching it that you neglect other things while training/working/planning whatever wouldn’t that also make you less happy?

    Your comments made me think about my half marathon PR earlier this year. I had a vague time goal, I put in some half-assed training, and didn’t even realize I had reached my goal until I looked up my previous race times after I finished! I was so happy because it was a surprise. Also, even just getting this new job. I had a vague goal to get a new job and was so surprised when it happened even though I had been applying like crazy 🙂

  4. Xaarlin says:

    I think we kind of know this intuitively- but it is interesting to see it put into words.

    I think purposely lowering your expectations is hard because I think it’s natural to quantify something (so always in the back of your mind you will have Goal X, even if you say your goal is now Y) at the same time we unintentionally underestimate our abilities and think there’s no way or it would be a long shot to hit goal X and when we do it’s a huge surprise (even though we were capable of achieving it all this time) does that make sense?

    It’s like yesterday at IG. I had no real expectations for the whole triathlon but I had estimated “realistic” finish times predicted for each discipline. I knew completing the swim would be a huge achievement, and that it would probably take me 20 min. I finished it in just under 19 (expected) but was even happier that I overcame the struggles I encountered during it to finish strong. Completing the distance was never an issue, but the real surprise was how I handled things when I began to panic and that made it even sweeter to achieve that goal. I wasn’t nearly as emotional or surprised when I finished the bike (almost perfectly predicted/executed) or the run (same)because duh. I knew I’d finish.

    • kilax says:

      Yeah, it makes sense regarding exercise goals – that we usually have a “general” goal in mind and never really KNOW what we can do (unless we are elite).

      I guess for me, I so rarely set time goals that almost every race I do is for fun, so most things are a pleasant surprise to me (and I am always looking for fun, too, so there’s that).

      And I exactly get how the tri was like that for you! Surviving was the goal, anything extra was a bonus! Ha ha. JK, not quite that 😉

  5. Bari says:

    Interesting perspective. I’ve been really hush-hush about my marathon goal(s) because my confidence sucks. I don’t want to throw a number out there and then not meet it and have to tell everyone I failed. I’m definitely surprised when I do better than expected. That happened in multiple halfs last year. I hit my A goal (2:10) at a race I showed up sick for about 8 weeks before my A race and blew myself away. Then I knocked off another 3 minutes at my A race, but by then I was burned out and kind of over racing, so it wasn’t as much fun.

    • kilax says:

      I am sorry that your confidence sucks! Do you want to share your goals? I mean, keep in mind that if you don’t meet them, the only one who will really care is you! Everyone else will just be excited you went for it!

      I can totally see being burnt out with racing making you feel less excited!

  6. Absolutely. And I do think that I’m pushing my limits way too much and am starting feel that let down when I don’t meet my goals. For Chicago, I”m hoping to finish strong, and obviously beat my last, horrible finish time of 5:20. I knew I could have done better and I was so depressed after that–it has taken me 3 years to get up the courage to try again.

  7. To some extent I think the surprise outcome does make things more exciting and likeable, but I know I experience some anxiety about things when I don’t know what will happen and that anxiety takes away from my happiness. So in some situations I think expecting something that you can count on as an outcome (e.g. “I can definitely run a half in 2:15”) can be helpful, too. I’m glad it all worked out for you!

    • kilax says:

      Ahh yes! It’s good to have some sense of knowing what will happen then having the little surprise. I tend to be very anxious for things too, even when I know I can “do it” (at a sports event) or if I know I will “have fun” (at a gathering).

  8. Very interesting! I’ve shifted a lot in my goal-oriented-ness lately, I’m working on figuring that out, but for now I have NO desire to have any huge goals. At least when it comes to fitness. Pretty weird for me!

    • kilax says:

      Are you finding it refreshing?

      I’ve figured I can have a “big” goal about once a year. Other than that and I don’t feel like working toward it. I do better just exercising for fun.

  9. Amy says:

    I get this. A few years back I was really training hard to run a 10K in less than an hour. We were signed up to run a 10K in Mechelen and I was all set to hit my goal. Turned out the course was short,and I was so mad and disappointed! (I even sound mad in my race report: Which, looking back on it, is so silly!

    • kilax says:

      I would be mad too! That is what happened to Gina and Steve with their first half being only 12.5 miles. It’s really disappointing when you have a big goal and something like that screws it all up!

  10. Irina says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, it got me thinking! I’m very goal-averse mainly because it adds unnecessary stress into my life – there are both pros and cons to having this mentality but at this point I don’t think my attitude will change. It certainly is a nice “surprise” when things do go as planned, but in many ways I do wish I could be that person who uses goals to drive myself towards bigger and better things.

    • kilax says:

      Yep! Too much stress. And for not feeling that fantastic after reaching a goal! But some people are so driven by them! It’s interesting how we’re all different!

  11. Mica says:

    I used to expect the worst for things so that I would be pleasantly surprised if it went well and not surprised if it didn’t. At least, that’s what I told myself; I was still disappointed with bad outcomes. I am trying not to set too many goals for things like races because the stress leading up to the race and the disappointment of not meeting my goal (for whatever reason) is a definite net negative.

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