Why Reaching Your Goals Will Never Make You Happy

Have you ever considered the possibility that reaching your goals won’t make you happy? That achievement and accomplishment won’t satisfy you? Do you ever get a sneaking suspicion that you are cheating yourself out of your own happiness? Like you’re missing something important. I’ve felt this way most of my life, but I believe I found a piece of the puzzle and I want to share it with you. Let me give you a clue…

Accomplishment isn’t what you really want. It’s a hoax.

You’ve probably heard someone say life is a journey not a destination. A worthless platitude, right? But I had an experience yesterday that seemed to give the idea freshness.

Why do children see things so clearly? A respected programmer once told me it was easier to teach a child Object Oriented Programming concepts than to teach a 20-year veteran. I didn’t think much of his comment at the time, but after the last 4 years with my son, I am certain he was right. Children see things as they are, not how social conditioning demands that we see them. If each adult could see the world through the eyes of a child for a day, it would shake the foundations of civilization. But our society doesn’t value the thoughts and opinions of children. Our society views them as destructive little monsters that we need to hammer into shape.

As I wrote in “Are video games bad for kids?” – my 4-year-old son is obsessed with Spyro 1&2 for the PS1. He has completed both games, finding every gem, beating every boss, and discovering every secret. He knows every corner of every map, the strengths and weaknesses of every opponent, and conquers the obstacles with a speed and precision I never imagined he possessed.

After working at it for a week, he finished Spyro 1. He collected 14,000 gems, dozens of eggs, 80 dragons, defeated hundreds of bad guys, and solved multiple puzzles. As he was reflecting on his accomplishment he said, “Dad, you know, I don’t like that part. You know, the part when it plays the movie and the music and the words (credits). The fun part is doing all the stuff in the different lands. Getting the gems and dragons is the fun part. Not the end. I don’t like the end.”

A light went off – pow! This is what people mean when they remind you to live in the present. Enjoy it now because now is all you have. When the end comes, it’ll be too late.

Let me give you a better example.

In Minnesota, boys ice hockey is God. They start out around 5 or 6 years old and the ultimate goal is winning the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. Minnesota ice hockey is like Texas football, it means everything to some towns. Each season thousands of boys begin playing hockey but only 20 boys will win the championship game.

At the end of the championship game, when the clock expires or someone scores in overtime, the winning team erupts in celebration falling all over each other on the ice while the losers sob crocodile tears about how close they came. But in that instant – from that split second before victory occurs to the fleeting emotional moments afterward – the ultimate goal passes from the future through the present and becomes history – never to be experienced again. The actual experience of winning only lasts a few seconds! After that, it’s just a memory.

For many of the boys, that moment is the culmination of 13 years of living and breathing ice hockey. What did the previous 13 years playing hockey have to do with that brief moment of victory? Everything – it was the essence of the victory. It was the real fun. But if you spent those years obsessed with the goal – living for the future – you missed all the fun. In this case winning the tournament is the end. Winning that final game is the peak, the pinnacle of success, and it ends there. Even Neal Broten who went on to win the NCAA Championship, the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal, and the Stanley Cup said those experiences paled in comparison to the Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament.

So what’s my point? My point is that the end result of your work or goal isn’t where you really want to be. Once you are there, it’s over. You really want to be where you are right now. That’s why once you reach a goal you always set a new one. Happiness does not lie in accomplishment; it lies in the act of accomplishing.

Do not think I am dismissing accomplishment and goal setting. I am not. I have spent most of my life fiercely competitive. Set goals, accomplish great things, but remember the fun part is happening right now – right this minute as you work to achieve your goals. If you wait to have fun until after you reach your goals, you will have missed the point because it will be over… gone… poof… and you’ll be standing there asking… what will ever make me happy?

23 thoughts on “Why Reaching Your Goals Will Never Make You Happy”

  1. You’re certainly right. We don’t notice it but it’s true. We always want to achieve to top. But once it is finished, it’s all goes to memory. We had the wrong understanding about it maybe because most of us don’t achieve our goals. and end up with a different ending.

  2. Amazing. I subscribed to your feed recently, and was just going through my feeds this morning and read this post. It’s just the perfect thing I need at the exact moment. I’ve been downright stressed for the past month trying hard to make money to move to another country, and found that I was just so unhappy. Then I thought, you’re right, happiness is not in the accomplishment it’s in the act of accomplishing. I should really enjoy the process of achieving my freedom. Thank you for this post. 🙂

  3. Cyn,

    Thanks for the comment, I am so glad to hear the post helped you in some way.

    Your comment did a lot for me too. I’ve been struggling with this blog and was wondering if it was touching people the way it used to.

    Your comment cleared that up for me. It is touching someone.

  4. Please don’t be quitting this blog Steve. I can’t speak for everyone obviously, but I (like Cyn) am quite a recent subscriber and I appreciate your thoughts and musings on life around you.

    When they complained about money, I always tried to tell the guys I used to work with, they would be no happier with the money that ‘thought’ they wanted. Happiness and contentment is not based upon what we possess or even achieve; it’s based upon our frame of mind in the present.

    If attaining goals of wealth and prosperity is what makes us happy, how is it that an ex leper in Brazil, with no limbs or sight for the past 25 years, can sing and praise God every day?

    Thanks for this post Steve.

  5. Maybe you need an article or two that deals with what we’re all being confronted with at the moment, ie. Global Warming. We here different voices and ideas on it, but maybe Steve can add a slant to the issue that breathes a hint of originality?

    Just a thought.

  6. Wow, I am seeing synchronicity in action!

    I’ve been thinking of posting my own “eureka” moment and came across this post as well as one by DigitalRichDaily: “Its like most things in life. When we are THERE…in it…living it…we struggle so much. We make rookie mistakes, we slack, we don’t understand that each day, each effort, each thing we decide to do is the BIG LEAGUES. We are in it, and don’t even know it.”

    For those who want to check it out: http://digitalrich.blogspot.com/2007/04/watch-glove-turn-body-throw-leg-snap.html

    The universe is definitely reminding a few of us of what’s important!

  7. You make a good point. Since our goals are most of the time hard or takes a long time to be achieved, we are more attached to the process of achieving it. I guess if our goals are easily achieved, it wouldn’t be any fun achieving.

  8. Explains very well why highly ambitious people so often reach for the next goal once they have accomplished the previous one. You’ll often hear them (or others about them) say that “it just wasn’t enough” and they keep on climbing that endless ladder, thinking it is the fruits that they want when they reach the top. As you so clearly put it, they never stopped to realize that it was the struggle to the top that was so fun.

  9. Wow. I have been getting very upset with myself recently for not acheiving several goals that i set. It has made me so frustrated that I have actually neglected paying attention to other goals. Your post has reminded me that I need to not be so focused on the accomplishment, but on the process of getting there.

  10. @Godwhacker

    Does it not really? Are you really prepared to take on your government? Do you have the means to do so? Are you willing to pickup a firearm? Do you even own one?

    I find, often times, that those that claim that we’re being ruled by fear are the same ones that seem to argue against the rights afforded to use by the second amendment.

    This is the exact reason, the very underlying philosophy, why the founders protected the rights of individuals to own firearms – to protect us from our government. So, to all those complaining that we’re ruled by fear, what are YOU doing about it?

    Honest question.

  11. Nice article, but there is a problem with your frame – “happiness” is not the “goal” or rather “quiescent state” of life. Fulfillment and happiness are both vital. There are plenty of people who are happy but not fulfilled. Fulfillment means fulfilling your mission in life, a little bit every day; it means making progress on your mission at all different levels – your mission with your relationships, your mission with your work, and your mission with God. It means letting your inner light shine out. Happy means getting drunk with buddies 🙂 I think you need both…

  12. “Happiness does not lie in accomplishment; it lies in the act of accomplishing.”

    Even cats know this: the chase is beter than the catch!

  13. Hello there!

    I just stumbled upon your blog. I am currently a little demotivated. I am takeing a little break and try to regain momentum by reading motivational postings. So I give your one a try. 🙂



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  15. Not to be a douchebag, but FYI, you misused the phrase “crocodile tears.” It means “a hypocritical or insincere display of sorrow.” Moving post, though.

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