Why your goals might be making you miserable

| May 24, 2018

In an age where we are constantly juggling different goals across work, leisure and other commitments, researchers have found that pursuing goals at odds with each other could be a recipe for unhappiness and under-performance.

A survey of more than 200 young people by Dr Nick Moberly of University of Exeter in the UK and Associate Professor Joanne Dickson of Edith Cowan University investigated two types of goal conflict:  inter-goal conflict and ambivalence, and found that both forms were independently associated with anxious and depressive symptoms.

Professor Dickson from ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities said, “We know that striving for goals that are important to us gives life meaning and purpose and promotes wellbeing. However, when these goals generate conflict they can contribute to psychological distress.”

Professor Dickson said that inter-goal conflict occurs when one goal makes it difficult to pursue another goal – either because they are inherently incompatible or because they draw upon a limited resource such as time, money or effort.

“For example, a person’s goal to spend more time with their family might conflict with their goal to get promoted at work,” she said.

Another form of conflict, ambivalence, occurs when people have conflicting feelings about attaining a certain goal.

For example, a person might have the goal of trying to become more intimate with someone, but they might also feel concerned about being tied down because being independent is important to them.

Professor Dickson said that ambivalent feelings about goal pursuit may reflect a deeper conflict of which the person is unaware.

“It could be useful for people to acknowledge ambivalent feelings about their goals as these may indicate underlying motivational conflicts that are outside of awareness. Attention to these deeper conflicts may be a prerequisite for resolving them and relieving distress,” she said.

In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. Understanding these mental health conditions from a motivational perspective may contribute to the development of more effective treatments.

“Goal setting and goal pursuit is increasingly being implicated in the maintenance of emotional symptoms. By better understanding how we set and pursue goals, how our goals interact, and the motives underpinning them, we can hopefully reduce rates of anxiety and depression,” Professor Dickson said.

Goal conflict, ambivalence and psychological distress: Concurrent and longitudinal relationships by Dr Nicholas Moberly and Associate Professor Joanne Dickson was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is published in the Elsevier journal Personality and Individual Differences.