Setting self-concordant goals

Thursday, 15 June 2023

Psychologist Kennon Sheldon asks the key questions: is it possible to become happier and if so, how? Why do people pursue overly materialistic goals and how can they be helped to select more satisfying goals? What is the nature of optimal motivation and optimal functioning? 

We have a world flowing with useful advice so why do so many feel there is something missing? Why do some question what we are doing with our lives? Simply, many lead lives that are misaligned with their values and preferences. Sheldon studies the idea of people knowing what to want! How do we choose goals for ourselves? How do we know that goals that are being set are simply not goals that society expects or that the bombardment of messaging has imbued? 

He believes (through his body of research) people do not have a good sense of what would make them happy. Many studies found that people who were establishing goals in their lives were no better off when they were revisited years later. Why? Because people blindly follow voices in our society that tell us what we want. Think of Gordon Gekko’s famous, captivating speech in the movie Wall Street:

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.

Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA”.

There are the not-so-subtle ways of telling us that money and status are the ultimate barometers in life and hence goals should be based on them. Too often, we set goals according to what others want for us - or what we think others want for us – rather than goals we set for ourselves. Parents have firm ideas as to what they want their children to do and many children will set a goal aligned to a parent’s wishes because they know consciously or not, this is what they want. Parents have their own goals and would like their child to be this or that. 

I am a big advocate for and believer in children setting some realistic goals that conform to S.M.A.R.T. format. (Specific / Measurable / Achievable / Relevant / Time Bound). They are able to do this at quite a young age and whilst we would be awake to children setting goals they think we want to hear, they should be capable of also establishing some self-identified self-concordant goals. 

Self-concordant goals are goals that are aligned with who we are, our authentic self, and with what we really want to do in our lives. They are goals that we pursue out of deep personal conviction. Self-concordance enables a person not only to achieve their goals, but also to satisfy their need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and ultimately obtain a lasting sense of well-being and fulfilment. These benefits have been observed in academic, occupational, and cross-cultural settings.

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