We’re happier with our lives when we see our goal as attainable, a new study from the University of Basel reports.

Miniature golf.

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Each and every one of us has a set of goals that we’re striving towards. Be they professional, personal, social, or other types of goals, we work to reach them through the humdrum of daily life. But the wise should set goals they feel are achievable, a new study shows, as our perception of the goals has a large impact on our life satisfaction later on — whether we achieve said goals or not.

Happiness-oriented goals

The team examined how life goals affect people’s happiness and well-being throughout adulthood. They worked with 973 participants, between the ages of 18 and 92 years old, living in German-speaking parts of Switzerland. Participants were asked to assess the importance and 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. Half of the participants were surveyed again after two and four years.

One of the key findings of the study is that people who perceive their goals as being attainable overall reported higher cognitive and affective (mental and emotional) well-being in the follow-up surveys. The team notes that actual attainment of the goals wasn’t particularly relevant — it mattered a bit, sure, but how attainable people felt these goals were had the most powerful effect. The authors take this as an indication that it’s the feeling of control over one’s life — which derives from how attainable they feel goals are — that generates these positive feelings.

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The link between life goals and subsequent well-being appeared to be largely independent of the participants’ ages.

What flavor of goals we like to set for ourselves has a further impact on quality of life. For example, people whose goals mainly revolved around social relations or health were more satisfied with their social life or health state, respectively.

Our wants, needs, and aspirations also morph over time, so the team also looked into how age impacts the choice of goals. It mainly comes down to the tasks we have to overcome at the particular stage of life we find ourselves in, they report. Younger participants, for example, rated personal growth, social status, social relationships, and professional advancement as important. Older participants rated social engagement and health as being more important. This change in priorities wasn’t sudden — we don’t drop personal growth in favor of health the second we turn 40, for example. It happened gradually. The younger a participant was, the more likely he was to rate those four higher on their priority list; the older the participant, the higher they rated social engagement and health.

“Many of our results confirmed theoretical assumptions from developmental psychology,” says lead author and PhD student Janina Bühler from the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology. One such assumption is that goals are heavily influenced by age.

“If we examine, however, whether these goals contribute to well-being, age appears less relevant.”

So, all in all, it’s important to find which goals work for you — they’re expressions of our characters, and, as such, take on unique nuances for each of us. But always try to keep them attainable, or break down lofty goals into a series of easily-manageable chunks. Even if you don’t reach them, you’ll probably be happier later on.

The paper “A Closer Look at Life Goals Across Adulthood: Applying a Developmental Perspective to Content, Dynamics, and Outcomes of Goal Importance and Goal Attainability” has been published in the European Journal of Personality.