Happiness: Should you have GOALS or RESOLUTIONS?

For my Happiness Project, I always talk in terms of my “resolutions” – my resolution to “Quit nagging” or “Sing in the morning” or “Make time for projects.”

I’d noticed idly that a lot of people talk instead in terms of “goals.” I’d never thought much about this distinction, but yesterday, it struck me that this difference was, in fact, significant.

You hit a goal, you achieve a goal. You keep a resolution.

I think that some objectives are better characterized as resolutions, others, as goals.

“Run in a marathon” or “Become fluent in Spanish” is a good goal. It’s specific. It’s easy to tell when it has been achieved. Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it!

“Eat more vegetables” or “Stop gossiping,” or “Exercise” is better cast as a resolution. You won’t wake up one morning and find that you’ve achieved it. It’s something that you have to resolve to do, every day, forever. You’ll never be done with it.

Having goals is terrific for happiness. The First Splendid Truth says that to think about happiness, we need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. Striving toward a goal gives a tremendous sense of growth.

But it can be easy to get discouraged when you’re trying to hit a goal. What if it takes longer than you expected? What if it’s harder than you expected? And what happens once you’ve reached your goal? Say you’ve run the marathon. What now – do you stop exercising? Do you set a new goal?

With resolutions, the expectations are different. Each day, I try to live up to my resolutions. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but every day is a clean slate and a fresh opportunity. I never expect to be done with my resolutions, so I don’t get discouraged when they stay challenging. Which they do.

For example, one of my recent resolutions was “No more fake food.” Have I achieved this goal? Well, maybe — I haven’t had any fake food since I made that resolution. But practically not a day goes by when I don’t fight the temptation. How many times has my hand hovered above a Glenny’s 100-Calorie Brownie? “No more fake food” is a resolution, not a goal.

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One thing I have NOT done in my Happiness Project is to start practicing meditation — even though a chorus of practitioners and scientists laud it. For example, Gimundo had a very interesting post about how meditation can increase compassion.

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  • http://riakennedy.blogspot.com/ Ria Kennedy

    Excellent insight and very helpful way to look at making commitments. Thanks.

  • http://www.jackieharvey.wordpress.com Jackie

    I find that goals are easier to achieve and that it’s a progress. If you have a resolution to lose 60 pounds in a year. That can seem overwhelming, but if you set a goal of losing 5 pounds each month it seems easier. You don’t just set a goal. You set many that are related. Take running for a marathon. Maybe your first one is a small 5k race and you achieve that goal, when then the next goal can be to strive to run a 10k race.

  • Marta

    Good point. “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” – Napoleon Hill
    Resolutions appear to not have deadlines but you can create mini-tracking points which might help break it up. For instance, around the new year, there’s a lot of advice on how to keep your resolutions and it kind of sounds like a goal: to kick or start a new habit you should give it 21 days, then it’ll start to become automatic.

  • http://www.empoweredreader.blogspot.com Jennifer

    I never thought of it that way.
    I really like how my favorite book “Time Power” breaks it down and makes even the resolutions easy to acheive. There is just nothing like knowing you have made your day worthwhile.

  • http://www.happyhealthylonglife.com Healthy Librarian

    You nailed the distinction between a goal & a resolution on the head. Here’s a great acronym for setting goals that we have to do for work. It’s probably all over the corporate world, but I hadn’t heard it before.
    Setting S.M.A.R.T. GOALS
    S stands for SPECIFIC. Exactly what are you going to do?
    M stands for MEASURABLE. How will you measure what you’ll be doing?
    A stands for ACHIEVABLE. Is this something you could do with a bit of a stretch?
    R stands for RELEVANT. (or realistic) Does this really matter to you?
    T stands for TIME. It’s gotta have a due date!
    It really makes me think things out carefully & put my money where my mouth is!

  • http://kinnicchick.com Keri

    Very excellent points.

  • http://www.rellisiegel.com Relli

    Good point.
    The way I see it: to achieve a long term commitment, you need to set small steps on your way. The small steps can be small goals, that can be measured. Achieving a goal, as small as it is give us the drive to move forward toward the BIG goal.
    I am reading the book ‘one small step can change your life, the Kaizen way’ By Robert Maurer. This book is about taking taking one step at a time. The small steps will lead to the big goal.
    To connect it to goals and resolution, you can say that the resolition is a long term commitment that will take many small steps and goals smal to make it a success.
    Thanks for that great point!
    Relli

  • http://www.rellisiegel.com Relli

    Good point.
    The way I see it: to achieve a long term commitment, you need to set small steps on your way. The small steps can be small goals, that can be measured. Achieving a goal, as small as it is give us the drive to move forward toward the BIG goal.
    I am reading the book ‘one small step can change your life, the Kaizen way’ By Robert Maurer. This book is about taking taking one step at a time. The small steps will lead to the big goal.
    To connect it to goals and resolution, you can say that the resolition is a long term commitment that will take many small steps and goals smal to make it a success.
    Thanks for that great point!
    Relli

  • Greta Dobe

    Goals are resolutions married to action.

  • Alex

    Gretchen. I love this blog. I’m currently running a marathon (well, finishing my Master’s, on an extension), and I come to your site daily to learn how to keep my daily resolutions that will help me to achieve my goal, in the next 4 months.

  • Alex

    Goodness. Not “that will,” but “, to”. Anyways, you’re an inspiration. Thank you.

  • http://wtmu.blogspot.com/ Patti

    To me, a resolution is identifying what it is you want to achieve. ‘I resolve to eat more healthily’ which encompasses a lifetime.
    A goal is an aim that has an endpoint, such as ‘I will eat three pieces of fruit each day’ We move from one goal to the next, as they are achieved.

  • Danielle

    Great post :o) I’m having one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that!?!’ moments…here’s why:
    Just to confuse the semantics, in international development we use a logistical framework for planning, where ‘goals’ a more general and something to continually strive for. Objectives are specific, and are either achieved or not.
    Obviously it doesn’t matter what terminology anyone uses – the universal point you’ve hit on is that we often need long-term, never-ending focal points, as well as shorter-term, achievable steps to take to get there.
    It’s funny because I’ve been thinking a lot about how to structure what I’ve been calling my personal ‘goals’…and something just didn’t feel right. I never thought of applying the framework that I use at work everyday. Now I know exactly what to do!
    (P.S. For anyone who’s interested, google “logistical framework” to learn about a great tool for planning…which I now realize can be used for your personal life as well!)

  • http://www.thedepressiontrap.com Nancy Hine

    I agree, I make resolutions for ongoing things like eating healthily and exercising regularly. These are things I intend to keep doing. In a way I feel a resolution is stronger than a goal. A resolution is a long term, maybe life long committment, whereas a goal is just aiming to do something, maybe just once.
    Goals can be useful too, but I think its important that they be achievable over a reasonable time frame, or that if you have long term goals you break them down into smaller chunks. I’ve actually found goal setting can end up making me feel very disillusioned and down if I set goals that are too big. All these books that encourage you to aim for the stars start off being inspiring, but can end up making you feel worse than before you read them when your goals aren’t realised. At the moment I’m having a time out on goals (apart from one financial one), as I found they were making me unhappy. However, I do have a number of resolutions.

  • Sharyn

    I think of it like this:
    RESOLUTIONS are attempts to create HABITS to achieve your GOAL – HAPPINESS.
    An aside: I think it would be very interesting for you to experiment with meditation, and let us know about your experience with it.

  • Sheryl

    For a long time I put off developing a meditation practice because I thought it was too hard, required to much commitment, etc.
    I am a “rules” orientated person so I decided to take a class on meditation in order to understand it better. The instructor suggested that we should start slowly – only 5 minutes a day and then build up if we liked. She said that it was better to meditate just five minutes than not at all and that even if your practice didn’t expand past the five minutes a day that it would still make a big difference. That was the key to getting me started. I used your resolution chart to keep track of my progress for the first two months and now have four and a half months of daily meditation under my belt. It has truly made a difference for me.

  • MiniExec

    I think of resolutions as value propositions to yourself: they speak to a way we want to live our lives, whereas goals can be ever changing.

  • http://www.lifeonthehighwire.com Deonne

    Interesting – I hadn’t thought about this distinction, but you’re right.
    Did you see this new book, The DailyOM? I’m not affiliated with it at all, but it looks like it might be a good tool for creating a happier life.
    http://www.dailyom.com/book/letters/bookletter

  • Ladyexpat

    Interesting post. I’ve never really thought about them being different, but they definitely are. I see your point as goals ending, and resolutions as ongoing. Good post.

  • PNWGal

    Funny you should write about this, I got a copy of your resolution chart and tweaked for my goals/resolutions. Just this month, as my piles are creeping back, I realized that I need to re-tweak because some of the items are more goals rather than resolutions that can’t be checked off every day. However, they should be read/reviewed every day to remind me what I want to change/do.

  • http://www.gretchenrubin.com Gretchen Rubin

    Someone mentioned HABITS…and I’ve started thinking about how habits fit into goals and resolutions — how they can help us or hurt us.
    Saying that something is a “habit” makes it sound a bit deadening, but actually habits can be extremely useful.
    Ok, more to think about. Much to contemplate in these comments!

  • http://wtmu.blogspot.com/ Patti

    True, there is a fine line between habit and discipline!

  • janice

    I see a goal as something to work towards and a resolution as something to let go of. The combination of the two can only be a good thing. in a persons life, from my point of view.