Inspired Living: How to Set Goals for a Happy Life

October 4, 2013

It seems that the German language has a word for just about everything. We all know about schadenfreude—a word that lacks a direct English translation, but which we’ve all experienced when that person who cut the line for coffee spills his drink down the front of his shirt. When I discovered the word entlistungsfreude, which means the satisfaction derived from crossing things off a list, I thought, finally! Not only does someone else know how I feel when I put a line through “laundry” or “call Mom,” but an entire culture does, and they’ve invented a word specifically for it. Insert here the word for “the satisfaction at discovering the perfect word.”

Entlistungsfreude, like a post-work out endorphin high, is a great motivator for the general life practice of goal-setting. No matter the size of the goal, simply having it—and the aspiration to meet it—can help increase productivity, focus, stamina, communication, and, of course, your own personal happiness. I recently accomplished a goal I set for myself one year ago, to read a set of long and dense novels I’ve always told myself I should read before I die or go blind from reading too much. I craved the experience and knowledge I’d gain, but also the ability to say I simply read them. Before I sat down and set a goal for myself—to finish the six volumes over the course of a year, no matter what—the idea of conquering the thousands of pages was so vague, it felt like more of an obstacle than it ultimately turned out to be. I put the box set on the top of my dresser, right in the middle so I’d see it everyday. I cannot lie and say that it was easy, or even always fun, but I’ve never experienced such profound entlistungsfreude. And once I crossed these off my lifetime reading list, after I finished the laundry and called my mom, I felt a great sense of pride and invincibility. If I could do this, I could do anything.


If you feel like no matter how hard you try entlistungsfreude is just out of reach, there’s empirical proof that setting concrete goals can help get results. In a 25-year psychological study,[1] “goal-setting theory” has proven that people who set more difficult and specific goals have a higher task-performance than those who set easy or vague goals [Tweet this fact]. This has to do with increasing motivation and effort, as well as using existing knowledge or seeking new knowledge to meet the goal. When you achieve something by pushing yourself in these areas, you gain confidence in your abilities to grow and be successful. This leads to increasingly difficult goals, higher success, and more satisfaction. A positive feedback loop of crossing-offs.

Setting goals is perhaps easiest to imagine and apply in task-oriented situations, like at your job or at school, where achievement can be measured and validated externally. If you work hard to get a promotion, a raise, or a certain grade on an exam, and then get it, you have positive proof that hard work leads to results. (There might also be a degree of obligation—i.e. “I must pass to graduate.”) But what about other areas of your life, like health, relationships, and general well-being, where often times the lines of necessity are more fluid? It’s hard to shift focus away from non-instantaneous personal satisfaction, and harder still when there are no definite quantifiable results.

Take the classic example of a New Year’s Resolution. Every January 1, countless people resolve to “lose weight” in the new year, but how many actually succeed? Studies have shown that this type of failure correlates to the type of goal—or resolution—that’s made. Individuals who set specific goals for changes in diet and physical activity, rather than a general goal about body weight, see results.[2] To say what you’d like to do is one thing; to outline how you’re going to do it, and then doing it, is another.

You might be thinking at this point: if success is as easy as telling myself to do it, why don’t I unilaterally listen? Setting a goal is not just sending out a wish into the universe and hoping it comes true. Here are the 5 tips to making sure that your goals are both lofty and attainable:

1. Strive for something that’s both challenging and meaningful to you. Consider my example: I wanted to read six 700-plus-page books. These were books I’d had a long interest in, so I was able to make a plan that required effort but was rewarding. If the books were something else—say, a set of law books—the goal would have been insurmountable.

2. Don’t set yourself up for failure. For instance, trying to lose a large amount of weight in a short amount of time—perhaps for one’s wedding or another special occasion—might be a goal that is too unreasonable to meet. Not only would it be extremely hard to shed 50 pounds in a month (for the average person, at least), but you’d be miserable doing it and as soon as you ended your crash diet the weight would come back.

3. Have some flexibility. I had to take a couple of breaks while reading my books, when it seemed too overwhelming, when I got mad at the main character, or when I felt it was taking away from my other interests (including reading non-Proust books!). Remember that it’s okay to deviate, and such flexibility makes the goal seem less like a homework assignment.

4. Ask for help. Having good support can also lead to more satisfying results. If you decide to try cooking at home more, enlist a friend to come over to be your sous chef or dinner date; or swap recipes with family members as a way to prevent a recipe rut. If you have a professional goal like moving to the next step in your career, let your friends know that you’re searching! Not only will other people help you out, the fact that you’ve made your goal public will be an added incentive to follow through your plan.

5. Create your own narrative. There is a powerful, motivating moment in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild where she thinks, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, so I chose to tell myself a different story.” No matter what is stopping you from reaching your goal—fear, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, or not being sure what your goal should be—the only way to overcome that is to rewrite the story where you can’t do it. And in giving yourself a happy ending, each page you turn to get there will add weight and depth to your slice of entlistungsfreude.

Also by Jennifer: Vegan Berry Cornmeal Crumble

More on Life: Simple Living: 3 Ways to Radically Reduce, Save Money, and Be Happier

Going for It: Dream Jobs and Self Confidence


[1] Latham and Locke, “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2006.

[2] Nothwehr F, et al. “Goal setting frequency and the use of behavioral strategies related to diet and physical activity.” Health Education Research. 2006; 22:532.

Photo: Jennifer Kurdyla

Features Editor Jennifer Kurdyla is a New York City girl with Jersey roots and a propensity for getting lost in the urban jungle. An experienced publishing professional, yoga instructor, home chef, sometimes-runner, and writer, she adopted a vegetarian lifestyle in 2008 and became vegan in 2013. She has written for The Harvard Review Online, The Rumpus, and Music & Literature and maintains a wellness-based website, Be Nourished, which features original writing and recipes. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram @jenniferkurdyla, Twitter @jenniferkurdyla, and Pinterest.


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