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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 92 > Article

Achieving Goals Doesn't Ensure Happiness
by Barbara Smalley

Ah, you made it.

Now you can be happy.

Then again, maybe you can't. That really depends more on whether you reach your goals.

How people feel about their goals, not whether they actually reach them, is the best gauge of whether they will be happy, according to Dr. Leonard L. Martin, a UGA psychology professor.

Unhappiness is not caused by a failure to get what you want; it's caused by brooding when you don't get what you want, Martin said.

With former graduate student William D. McIntosh, now an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University, Martin has explored the role of brooding on happiness. The two psychologists said brooding can result when people fail to attain goals they believe will make them happy.

To test this hypothesis, Martin and McIntosh measured people's belief's about goal attainment and happiness. Some people are "attached" to their goals; they believe they must have certain things fall exactly into place before they can be happy. Others, the "non-attached," do not place such situational constraints on their happiness.

In a series of studies, Martin and McIntosh found that attached people brooded more than did non-attached people and also spent a significantly larger percentage of their time unhappy. According to the researchers, attached people link the attainment of specific goals (for example, reaching an ideal weight) with their long-term happiness.

"After all, if they fail to reach them, they cannont be happy-- or so they believe," Martin said. "But the attainment of goals does not lead to long-term happiness, which means that attached people engage in behaviors that do not allow them to reach their most important goal- long-term happiness.

Non-attached people, on the other hand, do not link goal attainment with their long-term happiness. When these people fail to reach a specific goal, all they fail to acheive is that goal. They do not experience the brooding.

Attached people pay a double price when they fail to get what they want: They don't have what they want and they brood about not having it.

"The end result is that attached people spend a greater percentage of their time than do non-attached people with unpleasant thoughts on their minds," Martin said. "These unpleasant thoughts make attached people less happy than non-attached people."

In addition to attached and non-attached people, Martin and McIntosh described "detached" people who believe privately that goals are important and desirable. However, these people have given up striving because they believe that they can never attain their goals, Martin said. Like attached people, detached people brood and make themselves unhappy.

So, what's the secret? How do we stop brooding and become non-attached? Martin said the secret is in realizing that "little needs to be added to our lives to make us happy. Rather, something needs to be subtracted.

"What we need to get rid of are our beliefs that we will be happy if only we reach our goals," he said. "In most cases, these beliefs are false and holding on to them can lead us to brooding and unhappiness."

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