Sick of Goals? 6 Tips to Plan for Future Happiness

Dec 18, 2018 | Change

Sick of all the goal advice?

Do you roll your eyes at headlines like “How to make 2019 your best year ever,” or “How to crush your goals next year”?

I’m with you. I am skeptical whenever someone promises to have the formula for my future success. And yet, I recently clicked a video link with a title just like that. (I needed something to watch on the stationary bike ;).

Really, I didn’t learn anything new.

But it got me thinking, why do some of us resist goals and planning in the first place? Should some of us just forget this goal or future-planning thing altogether?

The short answer is no. But maybe we should stop worrying about how we look to everyone else and check in with numero uno (aka: you).

I don’t “do goals” /“I’m not a planner”

We’ve all had goals, hopes or dreams that have not come to fruition.

So it’s understandable if you resist goals or planning for the future. It’s one way to protect yourself from disappointment, or feeling like a failure.

I get it. For years, I had a motto: “Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.” Not surprisingly I was voted “class pessimist” in high school. (Now I’m a recovering pessimist thanks to the brain’s ability to change, aka neuroplasticity.)

But the problem with no planning or goals is that you’re a bit like a boat without a rudder, drifting wherever the wind – or someone else – takes you.

You may end up standing still, or you may end up somewhere you never really wanted to be. Neither are very satisfying.

So how can you harness your brain’s power to create future plans or goals in a way that avoids disappointment, and even gets you closer to fulfillment?

Past experiences help future goals

The brain has one main goal: to get us closer to pleasure or further from pain (for more on this, check this recent post). In fact, the brain is constantly trying to predict the future and help us decide what will make us feel better or happier.

In this prediction process, the brain uses not just its logical and analytical processing found largely in the prefrontal cortex, but it also links to our feelings about past events which are largely processed in the limbic part of the brain. (For a full discussion on this, check out this recent PODCAST.)

In this way, past events and our associated feelings help the brain predict what we want for ourselves in the future. And no one else can decide this for us, because no one else has our brain, our history and our feelings.

Donna Rose Addis of The University of Auckland has researched the important link between remembering our past and our ability to imagine our futures. In fact, the brain networks involved in remembering the past and imagining the future are very similar. 

The hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system of the brain and is critical to memory and emotional regulation, is involved in both remembering and imagining the future. And studies show that people who suffer memory loss also struggle with imagining their futures.

Research by Nathan Spreng at Cornell University agrees. He has found that planning for our personal futures indeed involves accessing our past and using memories to create a plan for future goals

Why does a goal matter?

Defining what is important about a goal or plan helps attach value and emotion to it which in turn fuels the brain’s drive to get us closer to pleasure. Conversely, if there’s no emotion or defined purpose behind a goal or plan, you’re much more likely to drop it.

Connecting a goal or plan to a positive emotion, a personal value or purpose will naturally deepen its meaning and motivation. Because understanding how a future scenario or goal will feel allows the brain to create the goal not just in the logical part of the brain (i.e. the prefrontal cortex) but also in the limbic system where emotions are processed.

And the more parts of the brain that are connected with a goal, the more neural pathways involved, and the stronger the goal will be.

What would success feel like?

One of the reasons we drop goals is that we forget to assess how we really feel about them, as opposed to what we think others expect or feel about them for us.

Remember the #1 goal of the brain is to get us closer to pleasure (or further from pain)? Well, no one other than you (and your brain) can know what is best for you because no one else has had your experiences or feelings in order to predict whether something will lead you closer to pleasure or happiness.

In considering what you want for yourself – next year or in the future – it’s important to imagine what success would honestly feel like for you.

Sometimes in our drive toward growth and accomplishment, or meeting expectations, we forget to ask ourselves how reaching a goal would actually feel.

For instance, you might have an idea that you should double your clients or profit for the next year because these are normative measures of success. But if you really sit and imagine what this “success” would look like and feel like, you might get a different idea. You might realize that the changes in your daily life (e.g., additional working hours) would not get you closer to happiness or what you really want.

Imagine the specifics of the future 

Research has shown that another way to deepen the meaning and emotion attached to a plan or goal – and therefore its likelihood of success – is to imagine the specifics of it happening.

A study by Roland Benoit and others, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that when people imagined future scenes in detail, their long-term decision-making was bolstered.

Specifically, people were asked to decide whether to take a small sum of money now versus a larger sum of money later. In making the decision, one group was asked simply to think about items they would buy with the money, while another was asked to imagine detailed scenes in which they’d use the money.

The study found that imagining future scenes created emotional meaning in a way that listing items did not. And the more vividly imagined and emotionally salient the scenes, the greater the difference in decision-making. 

Inside the brains of those imagining the future scenes, scans showed that a region of the prefrontal cortex involved in longterm decision-making received emotionally salient information which bolstered their ability to withhold instant gratification and plan for the future with greater reward.

6 Tips for Future Plans & Happiness

So as we approach the beginning of a new year, the time for planning and goal-setting, how can those of us who are historically goal-challenged approach our future plans differently?

First, remember that it’s a natural human desire to want to grow, so give yourself something to work towards. This, in and of itself, can create your happiness regardless of the outcome. Research shows that once a goal is attained (e.g., having more money), people become habituated to the new circumstances such that any initial happiness will wane.

Happiness is in the striving, so strive!

Here are some tips based on the research:

  1. Take time to reflect on your past. In remembering your last year or recent history, what were some highlights? Some disappointments? When did you feel energized or in the flow? What drained you or filled you with dread? Try to remember the specifics, including how particular events or experiences made you feel.
  2. Allow your past to predict how a future goal or outcome will feel. Your brain will automatically use your past to predict the future, but you can bring awareness to the process in order to have a conscious understanding of it. Bring curiosity to the interpretation and check possible biases. Does this past experience truly inform or predict this likely outcome? Are you getting caught in the trap of what others wanted or expected for you? Avoid external interpretations, and stick to your own authentic experience. Otherwise, the brain will begin to doubt its own history and experiences, and confusion will set in.
  3. Imagine future scenarios. Play with imagining various goals coming to fruition. Real or imagined, neurons that fire together wire together. Imagine the specifics: where are you? who is there? what are you doing/wearing/saying? what are other people doing/wearing/saying? What did you do to get there? Set the full scene. And of course, what are the emotions and energy of it? In this way, you can determine which goal(s) are best for you.
  4. Identify your purpose or meaning behind a goal. Keep asking, why does it matter to you? (You can ask this several times to get to the heart of it.)
  5. Don’t be afraid to commit. Remember that goals evolve as we do. Approach them with a sense of adventure and flexibility.
  6. Begin with small action steps, keeping the vision and purpose in mind. Take time to build the momentum. No need to make it a race and set yourself up for failure.

Happy striving!


Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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