Happiness Doesn’t Come From Getting What You Want


Most of you know that I am an expert on motivation and leadership, and the communication skills that leaders use in leading teams and helping gain alignment, commitment, and motivation in team situations.  With this background my friend Russ Taylor asked me to comment on Dan Gilbert’s work and its relation to the NLP idea of “Well Formed Desired Outcomes.”   He asks,

What would you say is the significance of this data for outcome-based change processes, or even on the ultimate value of change as a goal?

And points to Gilbert’s TED talk:



Hey Russ,

Thanks for the note.  Great TED talk.  I have been thinking a lot about happiness and NLP’s concepts of “Well Formed Desired Outcomes” recently in relation to the “well lived life.”  Here is a summary of my thoughts:

First of all, the word “happiness” is a bit confusing because we have only one word for three different underlying concepts.

The first is immediate pleasure, which we call happiness.  For example, “Yum, that is a good ice-cream cone.”

The second is the experience of being fully engaged in a challenging and interesting experience that we feel is meaningful.  As Csikszentmihalyi‘s research shows, we experience these as “flow” states where we get so involved that time seems to fly by and our sense of self seems to merge with the activity we are involved in.  These states are very rewarding, and we think of them as happiness or sometimes bliss, but when we are in them, we are too busy to think about the pleasure we are deriving.

The third experience we call happiness is the pleasure we derive when we look back on some experience or period of our lives and consider how we were living according to our personal values.  This “narrative happiness” describes past experiences in terms of a coherent story.  If we feel we met our values, we feel we were happy.

It is this third type of happiness that is the subject of narrative rewriting, reevaluation, and the “synthesis of happiness” that Dan Gilbert is talking about.

Gilbert and Wilson’s research is important and sheds light on the exaggeration of choice and the illusion that if you get what you want you are going to feel happy.  I don’t think it is surprising anymore that this is not the case.  In fact, setting desired outcomes, like any other expectations, is a surefire way to create suffering.  Think of what the Buddha said.  If you could live totally in the now with acceptance for all that is as it is, then you cease suffering.

This does not mean that all choices are equal, or that freedom of choices is of itself, bad.  Only that if you think that happiness comes from what you get, you are likely to be disappointed.  Some quote I once read seems right to me, “In the end we are about as happy as we set our minds to be.”  (Abraham Lincoln?)

Nevertheless, we are still outcome driven creatures at all levels of experience, from the micro, “I think I will adjust the temperature by opening the window,” to the macro, “I want to be a doctor when I finish school.”  Achieving goals has little to do with happiness, and lots to do with effectiveness, which has something to do with the first two types of happiness but little to do with the third.

The couch potato might not be happy, but that is not because he or she doesn’t produce results, but because when he looks back on his life, he has neither a narrative that satisfies his values, nor the experience of flow states that come when we are fully engaged in an activity that we find interesting.  Doing nothing, and having no goals, however, may lead to the immediate satisfaction when we feel the relief of stress that comes from relaxing, and the immediate pleasure that comes from programmed entertainment, but it doesn’t lead to feelings of long-term fulfillment.

Now if your choices are constrained by circumstances, you may later synthesize happiness by coming to the conclusion that you did what you could with what you had, and in that sense you did your best and lived the best life you could.

But if you perceive that you have choice and don’t make use of it, that is a prescription for regret and lack of happiness.  Though sometimes this regret and happiness is ameliorated by addiction to mind-numbing alternatives like TV or drugs.  Many people have given up hope for any good life.  They try to “get by” with diversions, distractions, and dissociation from life.  But surly this “coping” does not constitute the good life.

On the other hand, setting goals and going after them doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness either.

Perhaps a better approach is to set goals for effectiveness sake, rather than with some expectation that we are somehow going to be happy when we achieve them.  For example, “well-formed desired outcomes” are more useful as communication tools for coming to a shared understanding and a consensual set of agreements between people than they are for generating happiness.

On the other hand, recent research about goal setting has suggested that if you want to be happy AND effective, concentrate your immediate attention on the process rather than the end goal.  (This idea is not new to Buddhists however)   The attitude that comes from taking up the challenge to continually improve your performance at the tasks we are doing leads not only to Flow States (Intermediate happiness) but to long-term happiness based upon narrative review.

When I teach about goals these days, I still teach the Well Formed Desired Outcome Frame questions as a way to build a shared goal between two or more people.  I think it is important, for example, to be able to think in sensory grounded terms about how you will know if you achieve a goal.  And stating goals in the positive so that you are moving toward some target rather than away from some fear is still a useful distinction.  As are ecology and timeframes and all the rest of the well-formed outcome criteria.

But I also teach about the difference between “Ends Goals” and “Means Goals.”  Well-formed Means Goals provide the distinctions for determining whether your performance is improving or not.  When you pay attention and challenge yourself to improve, and when you have a sensory-based measurement that provides feedback about whether you are or are not improving, you are very likely to go into one of those blissful “Flow States.”

By concentrating on the process you are doing and its improvement, rather than the end goal, you find yourself enjoying your task, and you are likely to improve in ways that are meaningful to you and meet your personal values, and so you feel the bliss of being “in the flow.”  Later when you look back on your improvements, you feel that you were meeting your values and so you experience long-term narrative happiness.

Oh, by the way, this is also the path toward excellence of performance and expertise.  Do it for 10,000 hours and you will become one of the more skilled in your field.  But that can’t really be your motivation if you also want to be happy.  But by focusing on the path, the happiness takes care of itself.

That is what I am thinking.  What are you thinking about goals, happiness, and effectiveness?



If you would like to learn more about using Goals to structure success and effectiveness or Mindfulness practices to connect with deep happiness check out my Course Offerings Page or consider the possibility of treating yourself to one-on-one Coaching.