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Goals typically produce feelings of contentment and well-being. Without them, life often seems without purpose or meaning.

But is there a flip side? Can goals be harmful as well?

Researchers have studied this important question, especially since so much satisfaction and happiness seems tied to goal-setting and accomplishment.

What is the trade-off?

Anxiety and worry. Researchers say that when people are highly committed to their goals, they may fear failure or worry that they won’t achieve them. This stress or anxiety can often counteract the potential positive effects of goal-setting. For example, not accomplishing one’s goals may threaten a person’s self-worth, even when that person holds positive perceptions of accomplishment.

In other words, goals are good. We must, however, always understand and appreciate the trade-offs associated with them.

Source: The Psychological Trade-Offs of Goal Investment by Eva M. Pomerantz, Jill L. Saxon, and Shigehiro Oishi

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In the mid-1970s as a junior at the University of Kansas, I took a class from Maynard W. Shelly, a long-haired, mustached professor in the psychology department. I had no great expectations for the class. I had heard through the grapevine that it was a relatively easy class to get a good grade, and at the time I was in the hunt for A’s or B’s in order to improve my GPA. But there was another reason I took the class. I was intrigued by its title — The Psychology of Satisfaction. Was there really such a thing? Could someone actually learn about what made someone happy, sad, satisfied or dissatisfied? Over the course of 15 weeks, I was about to find out.

What I learned had a profound effect on me then and continues to have a profound effect on me today. In fact, it’s fair to say that no class before or since has had such an impact on my life.

Why is that? How could one class have stayed in my consciousness all these years? Perhaps it’s just intellectual curiosity. I find it an endlessly fascinating subject and keep coming back to the topic as something to learn, explore and analyze.

Then again, it could just be that I, like most other people, have a vested interest in the outcome. I mean, wouldn’t it make sense that if I better understood what satisfied me and those around me that it would, in turn, likely to lead a happier, more satisfying life? This topic is very personal to me and has tremendous implications in my thinking and behavior.

But it could also be quite simply that I am convinced (now more than ever) that practically every corner of the globe — every society, every individual and every inch of human behavior — is intimately tied into the pursuit of satisfaction or the removal of dissatisfaction (often simultaneously). In other words, this to me is the unified theory of human behavior — it’s the theory that ties all behavior together, however large and small. Thus, for that reason alone — it’s important, relevant and worthy of greater understanding.

Sadly, Dr. Shelly passed away several years ago, and I never had the pleasure of speaking with him again after our brief encounters in class. But his thoughts and insights continue, primarily through his writings and the work of the graduate students who worked with him. This blog is a tribute to the man and his ideas, and I hope that you find as much reward in reading it as I will find in its creation. Enjoy.

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