December 31, 2015. What are my goals for the New Year? None!
For a period in my life I swam in the waters of “positive thinking”; of goal-setting with the focus on living in prosperity. I read the books and listened to the cassettes, and attended a church that was infused with what Oliver Burkeman in his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People who can’t stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber, Inc. 2012), called the “cult of optimism.” Since 1991 I drafted and tracked goals on a semi-annual basis. Some goals were accomplished, others not, and others abandoned because my heart was never into them when I first committed them to paper. I stopped after 2001 because life was traveling at a dizzying pace.
Goal setting creates a mindset that you’re not “happy” or “good enough” or “successful” in the present moment. So you set a goal for a future event that will define you or your work as a success, and thus delay happiness to that point. To quote Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, the future is defined as “(t)hat period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness assured.”
In the chapter titled “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work,” Burkeman demonstrated how goal setting backfires with, in some cases, deadly consequences, such as a 1996 Mount Everest climb that took the lives of eight people. Chris Kayes, a former stockbroker who became an expert on organizational behavior and was one of the surviving climbers, links the deaths to goal-setting, as they were “lured into destruction by their passion for goals.” (Burkeman, pg. 78). “In theology, the term ‘theodicy’ refers to the effort to maintain a belief in a benevolent god, despite the prevalence of evil in the world; the phrase is occasionally used to describe the effort to maintain any belief in the face of contradictory evidence. Borrowing that language, Chris Kayes termed the syndrome he identified as ‘goalodicy.'” (Burkeman, pg. 78-79). In Kayes’ studies of business organizations and their goals, he found that when a business’ goal was not being met, the business put forth a larger investment in effort and resources to pursue the goal, resulting in making the chance of accomplishment worse. (Burkeman, pg. 79).
Burkeman also sites a study that shows that those motivated by a goal are more apt to cheat. There are big name positive-thinking gurus who site the Yale Study of Goals. A group of researchers found that 3% of the students of the 1953 graduating class of Yale University formulated specific, written goals for their lives. The researchers returned twenty years later and allegedly found that those students amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97% combined. Compelling, eh? That’s why so many motivational gurus cite it. The problem is, the study does not exist.
Goals are more of a hindrance to living a happy life than not. In a survey commissioned by Steve Shapiro, 41% of adults agreed that achieving their goals had failed to make them happy, or had left them disillusioned, while 18% said their goals had destroyed a friendship, a marriage, or other significant relationship. Steve Shaprio, Goal-free Living (Hoboken, New Hersey: Wiley, 2006) cited by Burkeman.
Seriously. It can’t be said any clearer than this:
The optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to happiness is exactly the kind of thing the ego loves. Positive thinking is all about identifying with your thoughts, rather than disidentifying from them. And the ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now. Schemes and plans for making things better fuel our dissatisfaction with the only place where happiness can ever be found – the present. ‘The important thing,’ (Eckhart) Tolle told me, ‘is not to be continuously lost in this mental projection away from now. Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.’ Another staccato chuckle. ‘And that’s a revelation for some people. To realize that your whole life is only ever now. Many people suddenly realize that they have lived most of their life as if this were not true – as if the opposite were true.’ Without noticing we’re doing it, we treat the future as intrinsically more valuable than the present. And yet the future never seems to arrive. Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Faber and Faber, Inc. 2012) p.116.
After graduating from law school in 2004, and prior to studying for the Bar, I revisited my goal setting process. The process was superficial and empty to me due to my deeper practice and study of Zen during the break from goal-setting. In re-reading the entries from the twice-a-year logging of goals achieved, shelved, and committed to, I found that there was a lack of satisfaction. There were some things that created great memories. But it felt like an unending checklist that, once some goal was achieved, there had to be something else to replace it. And worse, concepts like being “prosperous” or “intelligent” or “wealthy” or “something better” lacked substance. What is wealthy? When does “wealthy” become achieved? It was like the hungry ghosts of Buddhist teachings, where the ghosts’ mouths are so small, yet their hungry bellies are so large, that no amount of “wealth” or “prosperity” or “intelligence” will be enough to fill them.
I sought to reconcile this and came upon a talk by Sangharakshita called “Nirvana” In the talk, Sangharakshita discusses “The Psychology of Goal-setting,” which can be found in the Essential Sangharakshita: A Half-Century of Writings from the Founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order by Urgyen Sanharakshita (Wisdom Publications, 2009). He describes a goal as something that you strive for.
“You could, if you like, draw a distinction between striving to be and striving to have. But actually, the two come to the same thing: ‘having’ is a sort of vicarious ‘being.’ A goal is in the end something that you want to be.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 116).
This makes sense to those who have goals of being wealthy, or being intelligent. Then, Sangharakshita takes it to the next step.
“There is one really crucial (if obvious) precondition for setting a goal: it must represent something you aren’t. You don’t want to have or to be what you already are. You can only want to be what you aren’t – which suggests, obviously, that you’re dissatisfied with what you are. If you’re not dissatisfied with what you are, you will never strive to be what you aren’t.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 116).
This dissatisfaction ultimately is a desire to achieve happiness. No one seeks unhappiness. And these concepts of “prosperity” or “intelligence” or “appreciated” or “respected” are never ultimately achieved. Why? Because at any level, there will be a need to be more prosperous, or more intelligent or more appreciated or more respected, or for something better. They are the empty bellies of hungry ghosts.
What does Sangharakshita suggest is the fix to this? A change of attitude.
“Rather than trying to escape from ourselves, we need to begin to acknowledge the reality of what we are. We need to understand – and not just intellectually – why we are what we are. If we are suffering, well, we don’t just reach out for a chocolate. We need to recognize the fact that we suffer and look at it more and more deeply. Or – as the case may be – if we’re happy we need to recognize that fully, take it in more and more deeply. Instead of running from it into guilt, or into some sort of excitable intoxication, we need to understand why, what the true nature of that happiness is, where it really comes from. And again, this isn’t just intellectual; it’s something that has to go very deep down indeed.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 119).
Burkeman reasons that goal-setting fails because it doesn’t address the issue we’re really trying to resolve – our uncertainty of the future. “Faced with anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.” (Burkeman, pg. 86).
I know the goal-setting crowd likes acronyms, and mine for GOALS is Ghosts of Attaining Life Satisfaction. Yeah, it’s a stretch. But to chase these ethereal creatures and to attempt grasping them in order to experience a satisfied life seems to be a waste of energy and focus, and a distraction from the happiness of now.
I will look back on 2015 for the year that it was, reflect on it, savoring its joys and reflecting on its missteps and challenges. But for the future? All I have is now. This time next year I can review another collection of 365 days of now-moments.
2016 is uncertain, and I’m satisfied with that uncertainty. It is foolish of me to set a goal, for example, of writing and publishing another novel in 2016. If something happens to alter that goal I’ll have excuses or disappointments to chastise myself with. And what do I really mean by setting a goal of publishing a novel? What am I not by seeking to achieve it? That I am not a writer unless I achieve it? How can I feel that with a whole page on this website listing my publications? Instead, I’ll just look back and see what good was created in 2016, and be all the happier for it.
And I just might be surprised at how awesome and challenging a year it can turn out to be – like 2015 was!