The importance of goals in both material success and general happiness has been a main focal point of scientific studies for many decades. The more we can understand the role that goals play within our inner design, the more we can influence their results and use them to achieve order in our lives.
At the Core, Goals Direct All Human Behavior
One of the most comprehensive psychological perspectives is encapsulated in Edwin Locke’s goal-setting theory. In the 1960’s Locke summarized his research in an article titled Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives, in which he showed that clear goals and appropriate feedback are essential to directing all human behavior. By setting the right types of goals and using them to guide our actions, we can establish the motivation required to achieve the things we want out of life.
Goals Are Tied to Our Evolutionary Needs
Goals have also been tied to our evolutionary needs, like the ones summarized by Maslow’s hierarchy. As you will recall, our brain perceives goals by the amount of attention that it focuses on a particular intention. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Flow, “intentions are… bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals. They act as magnetic fields, moving attention toward some objects and away from others, keeping our mind focused on some stimuli in preference to others.”
This role that intentions play in the psyche allows scientists to identify prominent goals in the lives of research subjects by determining what captivates their attention the most significantly.
In one study, children from both poor and affluent families were each presented with objects that had the size and feel of coins such as dimes and quarters. Remarkably, the children from poor families subjectively perceived the size of those objects to be significantly larger than did the well-off children! Because their basic security needs had yet to be met, their subconscious placed a greater amount of attention and emphasis on money-related images that would help achieve goals related to increasing that psychological need.
Similarly, Holocaust survivors reported that while imprisoned and starving in Nazi internment camps, their fantasies were entirely about food (rather than relationships, or even freedom).
Goals Depend on a Future Ideal
Another psychological construct on goal-setting is control theory, which says that individuals take action by comparing a current state to a future standard as defined by a goal, and adjust their behavior in a way that will move them closer to that standard. In other words, goals represent what would happen in an ideal outcome, and our brains are designed to use that future visualization to direct our immediate actions.
Goals Depend on an Information Feedback Loop
A critical component to control theory is the internal feedback loop, which analyzes the results of actions and uses them to adjust future behavior. For example, when my daughter, Lilly Grace was learning to ride a bike, she had an image in her head of riding down the sidewalk with the wind in her hair. When she ended up lying on her side in the grass, her internal feedback loop recognized that her current reality was not meeting the standard of her goal.
In her next attempt, she adjusted her behavior by listening to my advice of looking directly ahead rather than down at the handlebars. This helped her balance, and she stayed upright for much longer than she had before. Because the results of the feedback loop were positive, her brain synthesized a new mental representation related to maintaining balance. In this example, you can see how goals connect the results of our past to a desired future by directing our present actions.
We Are the Sum of All Our Goals
We all organize our life goals as a structured hierarchy within our subconscious. These goals are not just a way to pursue our ideal self – they are the self. As Csikszentmihalyi says in Flow “More than anything else, the self represents the hierarchy of goals that we have built up, bit by bit, over the years.”
This idea of a structured goal system ties back into the natural pattern of order that is reflected everywhere in the universe, including inside our own mind. If we align this hierarchy around one ultimate goal, Csikszentmihalyi believed, then we can turn life itself into a flow-inducing experience. The more we can identify with this ultimate goal and then uncover the layers of the hierarchy beneath it, the more we can transform our present actions into the future realization of our dreams.