Achieving lasting personal growth requires focusing on the right goals
It’s February now, and if you’ve already lapsed on a New Year’s resolution, you’re certainly not alone. Among those who make resolutions, nearly 80% abandon them by February, studies have shown. A lot of that can be chalked up to brain chemistry. If your resolution involved starting a new habit or breaking an old one, it can be extremely difficult to do because of how our brains become conditioned to continue routines. Changing patterns takes extraordinary effort, and a big reason resolutions often fail is that we focus on the wrong motivation. Whenever we stick to our commitment, we give ourselves immediate rewards that trigger our pleasure centers. That might be, for example, allowing ourselves a glass of wine at night if we went to the gym that day. These trigger hedonia; we get an immediate reward and feel it right there in the moment. It feels good, but it doesn’t last long.
Eventually, life gets in the way, there’s a scheduling conflict and we break the short-term, immediate reward cycle. Then we’re off it for good. If, however, we connect those resolutions to a greater purpose, one that contributes to overall well-being and a life well-lived, we see lasting results. That greater purpose, which Plato and Aristotle called eudaimonia, doesn’t hit us with immediate rewards all the time. But it keeps us focused on long-term goals by making the reward something deeper and more meaningful. Plato defined eudaimonia as “the good composed of all goods” and Aristotle said that while almost everyone agrees the best way to live is in a state of eudaimonia, there is little agreement on what will give us that sense of being in good spirits as a baseline state.
That’s because individuals are different. But we all have major goals. For some, it might be staying in shape so they can play with their kids or eating healthily with a view toward living a long time. For others, it might be mastering a skill or even making a habit of being on time with the goal of advancing their careers. Whatever the goal, maintaining the motivation is the trick. Again, some of this out of our hands, as the larger your insula (the part of the brain that deals with personal growth and positive personal relationships) the more inclined toward eudaimonia you are. But there are ways to help yourself along.
Making it last
In a 1989 study “Happiness is everything, or is it?” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Carol Ryff had subjects rate themselves on six aspects of well-being: self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth. From these, she formed a scale of psychological well-being. Improvement in these areas can put you on the path to eudaimonia. Obviously, though, that’s easier said than done. Many of us want to get better at those. They’re the impetus behind many of those resolutions we break. How does one get there?
Tony Robbins offers a set of self-improvement goals.
- Identify your objectives: What is it you want? Make it something concrete, not vague. Putting that vision in your mind can help you push toward that goal when the going gets tough.
- Establish your purpose: Think very hard about the area of your life, be it personal or professional you want to change. Are you willing to make that your priority, even if it means sacrificing other things? What will you gain from that? Make the decision to remind yourself why you chose what you chose.
- Break down your limiting beliefs: You can always think of a reason why you won’t achieve your goal. Assuming the one you’ve set is realistic, stop listening to that little voice in your head telling you that you can’t. When the thought crops up, allow it to pass, then remind yourself of all the reasons you can do it.
- Set SMART goals: Use the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and within a timeframe. That way you know where you stand, and it leads to the next step.
- Track and celebrate your progress: Getting to eudaimonia doesn’t require abandoning hedonia altogether. The road to a long-term goal has a lot of milestones along the way, and you can keep yourself motivated by recognizing and rewarding yourself for passing them. Celebrating the little achievements once in a while will keep your focus on the big prize.
- Get inspired: Find positive reinforcement in any way you can, be it from the people around you or from a book or class that will introduce you to new ideas that will enhance your personal growth.
- Master a new skill: By this point in the journey, you might be feeling pretty self-satisfied. It’s time to challenge yourself, add something new to your repertoire. It might make you more attractive to employers, potential mates, or new friends. More importantly it will force your brain to make new neural connections, reinforcing its elasticity.
- Use the right tools: Hold yourself accountable by journaling or marking your progress in an app. It can be extremely motivating to look back and see how far you’ve come, and the conscious act of keeping track forces you to think about your goal.
Reaching eudaimonia may not be fast, but the results are long-lasting. Keep at it and come next New Year’s, you won’t need to set a resolution. You’ll already be living it.