Setting realistic life goals may be key to well-being

Perceiving one's personal goals as attainable is an indicator for later cognitive and effective well-being.

Setting goals that are realistic and seem to be attainable may be key to your well-being and life satisfaction, scientists say. Wealth, community, health, meaningful work: life goals express a person’s character, as they determine behaviour and the compass by which people are guided, according to researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

It can therefore be assumed that goals can contribute substantially to how satisfied people are in life — or how dissatisfied if important goals are blocked and cannot be achieved.

Researchers conducted a detailed examination on how life goals are embedded in people’s lives across adult. The study, published in the European Journal of Personality, included data from 973 people between 18 and 92 years old living in German-speaking parts of Switzerland; more than half of the participants were surveyed again after two and four years.

The participants had to assess the importance and the perceived attainability of life goals in ten areas — health, community, personal growth, social relationships, fame, image, wealth, family, responsibility/care for younger generations, and work — using a four-point scale.

The findings reveal that perceiving one’s personal goals as attainable is an indicator for later cognitive and effective well-being. This implies that people are most satisfied if they have a feeling of control and attainability. Interestingly, the importance of the goal was less relevant for later well-being than expected.

Life goals also hold predictive power for specific domains: Participants who set social-relation goals or health goals were more satisfied with their social relationships or their own health. The link between life goals and subsequent well-being appeared to be relatively independent of the age of the participants.

Researchers also found that the goals that people value in a particular life stage depend on the development tasks that are present at this stage: the younger the participants were, the more they rated personal-growth, status, work and social-relation goals as important. The older they were, the more they rated social engagement and health as important.

“Many of our results confirmed theoretical assumptions from developmental psychology. Life goals were strongly determined by age,” said Janina Buhler, a PhD student at the University of Basel.

“If we examine, however, whether these goals contribute to well-being, age appears less relevant,” Buhler said. Hence, adults, whether old or young, are able to balance the importance and attainability of their goals, researchers said.

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