Why You Should Reframe Your Goals

An expert shares what you need to know about arrival fallacy and five ways to set healthy goals to be happier and avoid disappointment.

Body-positive influencer Jaimmy Koroma noticed an irksome trend on Pinterest: hundreds of boards titled “Things I’ll Wear When I’m Skinny.” So she started posting videos of herself on Instagram in various outfits to prove that any body can wear any trend. She’s highlighting the common trap people can fall into when setting goals—weight-focused or otherwise—in which happiness is contingent upon achievement. If you expect to find happiness by attaining something, changing something, or being someone else, you’re experiencing arrival fallacy, a term coined by Harvard-trained psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar.

“Arrival fallacy is basically the repackaging of motivation,” says Brent Macdonald, psychologist and associate professor at Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. “When people set goals for themselves and achieve them, they can then be left with this kind of void—they’ve got them and they’re still not happy,” he says. They may experience brief contentment, but it doesn’t last, and so they may feel depressed or look for another objective. Alternatively, they may never achieve the goal and blame such failure for their unhappiness.

We can all agree that hopes and plans for the future are essential to our growth—but how can we embrace the benefits of goal-setting and also avoid arrival fallacy?

Here, Macdonald’s five ways to make healthy goals and avoid disappointment:

Avoid thinking “I’ll be happy when…”

This is a sign your happiness in life depends on certain achievements. Thinking “I’ll be happy when [I get a new job, move to a new city, get married]” poses a threat to your mental health because you’re associating the goal with happiness, says Macdonald. The problem with that is happiness isn’t a guarantee, nor is it a constant state. Instead, it would be best if you ask yourself “what makes me happy now?” and concentrate on that.

Enjoy the journey instead of wishing for the outcome

“Focusing on the process of the goal as opposed to the end result is your best bet,” says Macdonald. He gives the example of a weight loss objective: “The idea of [collecting pictures of] ‘things I’ll wear when I’m skinny’ carries a significant amount of judgment about body image,” he says. “The belief that skinny is somehow the pinnacle of physical desirability is deeply problematic and really concerning.” In this case, shift your focus to the present—what would make you happy to wear right now?

Be realistic

“Arrival fallacy comes into play when we set up goals for ourselves that are kind of unrealistic,” says Macdonald. For example, many of us had unrealistic expectations of how the COVID vaccine would change our lives and everything would return to pre-COVID functioning. But that couldn’t have happened, and so we set ourselves up for disappointment. Instead, Macdonald recommends creating goals you have control over, including smaller wins like meditating every day, which you’re more likely to achieve.

Take inventory of the positives in your life

“We’re allowed to not experience joy 100 percent of the time,” says Macdonald. Keep your eye on what makes you happy in the moment. “The most effective way to do this, and what I recommend to my clients, is to take a deep breath and think about one positive thing that’s happening in your life,” he says. Sometimes even just that deep breath, that moment of calm, is in itself the positive.

Concentrate on your relationships

“The number one predictor of happiness…[is the] quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us,” says Ben-Shahar. Macdonald agrees: “Developing better relationships and building those relationships will help us feel better.” The benefits of supportive relationships far outweigh any other positive aspect in life, including money, status, and education. “Everything is superseded by relationships,” says Macdonald. “So if your goal is to develop better relationships, you’re probably not going to have to deal with arrival fallacy.”

Next: 9 Lessons from Yale University’s Popular Course on Happiness