How Setting Goals Can Help and Hurt Your Mental Health

The research is clear: People who set goals are more successful.

While goal setting is a beneficial practice in most cases, it’s not a miracle cure for all your problems like some internet coaches would have you believe. It’s not a foolproof way to achieve any and everything. If you’re tone-deaf, you’re not going to become an accomplished singer by setting goals.

However, goal setting can definitely benefit your mental health and happiness in many ways, but it can also have some detrimental effects.

Setting Goals Goes Against Your Brain’s Natural Tendencies

One challenge with goal setting is that it goes against how your brain naturally works. Past research shows that your brain inherently wants to prioritize and choose routine over novelty every time on its own. Makes sense – its top job is always to keep you safe. When trying to change a behavior, brain circuits for habitual and goal-directed action battle it out in your head for control. Therefore, any goals that require radical behavioral or thinking-pattern changes are going to be met with resistance initially.

Your brain is also wired to seek rewards and avoid pain, discomfort, and fear. However, that doesn’t mean that the more comfortable path is in your best interest. It just means that your brain prefers it. In fact, these preferences are “demotivators” and leave you with the desire to return back to the safety of your habitual behavior and thought patterns. However, with conscious effort, you can override these feelings and change your brain and behavior.

The Benefits of Goal Setting

Dopamine Boost

When you want something and get it, whether it’s a bonus, candy bar, or text message — your brain gives you a shot of dopamine. Dopamine is often called the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.

Because of this, it’s possible to boost dopamine levels by setting small goals and accomplishing them. For instance, your brain receives a spike in dopamine if you promise yourself you’re going to work out and then you actually do. This is one reason people like to-do lists. It feels good to check things off because you get a shot of dopamine. Each time your brain gets a hit of dopamine, it encourages you to repeat the corresponding behavior.

You’ll keep the dopamine flowing if you break goals down into bite-sized, achievable pieces. For example, if you want to exercise three times a week, check off each success with a bright marker on a calendar so that your brain sees and registers the accomplishment. If you want to write a book, make a goal to write for 15 minutes every day and reward yourself when you do.

Improved Performance

Research shows that setting goals can increase performance when:

  • the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging,
  • the subjects have sufficient ability,
  • feedback is provided to show progress in relation to the goal,
  • rewards such as money are given for goal attainment,
  • the experimenter or manager is supportive (if applicable),
  • and assigned goals are accepted and agreed upon by the individual.

Setting Goals Can Make You Happier

One study had people participate in three short one-hour goal setting and planning sessions online. The researchers then compared these people to control groups that didn’t complete the exercises. The results revealed a causal relationship between goal setting and subjective well-being.

In his book,  100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life, psychologist David Niven tells of a study in which:

People who could identify a goal they were pursuing were 19 percent more likely to feel satisfied with their lives and 26 percent more likely to feel positive about themselves.”

Valuable Experiences

According to a Psychology Today article, setting goals can provide you with valuable learning experiences that will benefit not only your mental health but your life in general. The practice can teach you important lessons on many things from independence, resilience, and competition to forgiveness and kindness. These skills are known to be important contributors to your mental health and happiness.

Quite simply, setting goals can help you grow as a person. One of the biggest satisfactions in life is seeing your life evolve in a positive, healthier direction and reaping the rewards. Thus, working towards and achieving goals can give your self-esteem a boost, which can improve your overall mental health and life satisfaction.

The Downside of Goal Setting

Depression and Anxiety

Not all goals are created equal. Goals with no specific aim can even be bad for your mental health. If a goal is too vague, it’s harder to reach, and you don’t know when or if you’ve even gotten there. One study found that general, vague, and non-specific goals caused depressed people to feel more depressed. The authors concluded:

We found that the goals that people with clinical depression listed lacked a specific focus, making it more difficult to achieve them and therefore creating a downward cycle of negative thoughts.

Setting goals can increase anxiety. One study found that as you would expect, anxiety increased with goal difficulty and self-confidence decreased.

Sense of Failure

Achieving a goal feels great, creates a sense of accomplishment, and sends your happy neurochemicals soaring.  However, not meeting a goal or getting off track somewhere along the way feels pretty lousy. When someone doesn’t hit their goal mark, it can lead to self-criticism, de-motivation, and a sense of failure.

If there’s a silver lining to not accomplishing your goals, it’s that the situation presents an opportunity to learn and grow. Many successful people tell us that failure is part of success.  Michael Jordan said:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And this is why I succeed.”

How to Set SMART Goals

A widely accepted goal setting practice is to decide what you want to achieve and then write down a “SMART” goal. SMART goals are defined as:

 Specific – A specific goal should answer these five questions:

  • What exactly do I want to achieve?
  • Why – specific reasons, purpose or benefits of accomplishing the goal.
  • Who is involved?
  • Where – identify a location.
  • Which restrictions or limits are important to consider?

Measurable – A measurable goal will answer:

  • How much or how many?
  • How will I know when it is accomplished?

Achievable – An achievable goal will answer the question:

  • How can this goal be accomplished?

Relevant –  A relevant goal will answer yes to these questions:

  • Does this seem worthwhile?
  • Is this the right time?
  • Does this match our other efforts/needs?

Time-bound – Goals includes target dates. A time-bound goal will help to answer:

  • When must I be finished?
  • What can I do six months from now?
  • What can I do six weeks from now?
  • What can I do today?

The next phase, where many goal-setters fall short, is to plan the steps you need to take and then put your plan into action. Questions to consider include:

  • What activities do I need to complete to achieve my goal and in what timeframe?
  • What resources do I need?
  • Who can help me achieve my goal?

Additionally, you will want to find a supportive friend or network to help you stay on track with your goal and touch base regularly to resolve issues and assist in staying focused on the goal. One study confirmed the importance of the above steps to achieve goals. The experiment showed that 76 percent of participants who wrote down their goals, actions, and provided weekly progress to a friend successfully achieved their goals.

Contributing Author:

Alex Moore is a West Virginia Psychology Undergraduate with a penchant for the intricacies of the human mind. When he’s not obsessing over curious minutiae, you’ll find him contributing to

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  1. Such valuable information here! I find this information on goal setting so helpful. I love to set goals and not I know how to do so even more effectively.

  2. Being a productivity geek (which includes lots of goal setting and to-do lists), I love the little dopamine rushes I get when I can cross things off my lists. Breaking things down into bite-sized tasks helps the daunting goals seem a bit easier. And after taking all those baby steps, it’s awesome to look back and see the big picture that all those baby steps created.

  3. Debbie this jumped out Setting Goals Goes Against Your Brain’s Natural Tendencies
    Wow that’s me i can be good but as i like to go with the flow goals can hem me in. I once has a professor who said goals can set you free!.

    • I’m with you, Suzie. I don’t care too much for them either. Oh well, works for us! 🙂

  4. I don’t even like the word ‘goals.’ It’s way too left brained for me…clearly I need to hone that side of me a little more! I’ve noticed over the years that whilst I definitely need to have direction in my day, my mind and heart like the idea of desires being fulfilled. Which really is a euphemism for goals…what can I say…it feels better to me…and I get the dopamine rush. lol 🙂

  5. Goals are good. I like having them. I generally prefer to set mini goals as they are less overwhelming. But it is definitely good to have a “big picture” and set touch points along the journey. I think the word is intimidating because of the hype around it. Truth is, nobody can do anything, however small, without knowing where they’re going. Although with travel, I must admit it is good to wander a little with no destination. Even so, even that is time bound and there’s a plan.

    Thanks Alex, and Debbie. I enjoyed this post.

    • Vidya, I like mini goals too. I hold the big picture, long-term goals loosely while focusing on smaller ones. If you take care of the smaller ones, you hit the big ones. Funny how that works. 🙂

  6. I do love setting goals and following them through…but I’m not very strict with myself if they can’t be met cause of genuine reasons. I’m all for going with the natural order of things…so I set small daily goals and then I have those big goals. So small daily steps to which lead to the big goal is my way to go. This way every step of the way I succeed I get a natural high too 🙂 Win – Win.
    xoxo, Z~

    • I’m with you, Zeenat. Loose goals, but allow for adaptation and flow with daily adjustments. works for me! 🙂

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