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Goalsetting—a powerful tool for wellbeing

Pic blog 120The Wisdom Works team is currently building an online tool to help one client’s employees enhance their personal wellbeing. It’s an interactive digital experience that lets the employee (1) clarify his or her personal vision of wellbeing, then (2) establish a meaningful goal or goals to pursue over the next year. The big idea is to encourage employees to adopt wellbeing goals that come from within, rather than choosing externally derived goals out of compliance or fear, which is what typically happens.

While the tool is part of a strategy to integrate employee thriving into the organization’s culture, this type of goal-setting also means employees take more individual accountability, an increasingly critical step. A recent study by The Futures Company found that nearly 73 percent of Americans are trying to take better care of their health today than just a few years ago, yet 49 percent find that other things take priority.

Striving for meaningful goals can itself be a source of wellbeing, according to University of California professor Robert Emmons. Goals help us identify how and where we wish to devote our energy. Goals guide us toward a desired future, providing a larger purpose and a motivating framework for our actions. Think about the last time you set a goal that felt profoundly worthwhile. The very act of creating that goal yields an experience of wellbeing (even if just a little), Emmons maintains.

In our own 2007 study of 527 professionals at a multinational company we found a clear relationship between goals and wellbeing. Employees who actively pursued a personal vision and aligned goals to guide their decisions and actions reported feeling 42% happier, 37% more effective at work, and healthier in sixteen dimensions (such as exercise, spirituality, emotional intelligence, career fit and creativity) compared with those who lacked such a vision and goals.

While building our client’s wellbeing goal setting tool we crowdsourced the question, “What’s the current thinking about creating and pursuing wellbeing goals?” What we learned can be summed up in a single insight: When it comes to wellbeing, all goals are not created equal. Consider these three points:

  1. THE DEFINITION OF WELLBEING MATTERS. Self-determining wellbeing – that is, establishing goals from a definition of wellbeing that is unique to you – will have a greater positive impact and staying power on the wellbeing journey.
  1. THE CONTENT OF THE GOAL MATTERS. Goals focused on power or impressing others (“Get my team to follow me”) may actually erode wellbeing. Yet goals that address relationships (“Be a better friend”), generativity (“Volunteer in my community”) or spirituality (“Tune into the sacred”) seem to naturally nurture it.
  1. THE BRAIN MATTERS: The act of setting a meaningful goal sets off a cascade of neurochemicals that invests your brain (and the rest of you) in achieving it. We are wired to crave making progress toward our goals. As Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal says, even “very small changes that are consistent with your big goals” can boost brain chemistry toward reaching those goals, even though you may not know exactly how you’re going to do it.

This science speaks to us as individuals, but I believe the larger implications are for our workplaces. Consider inviting employees to set meaning-driven wellbeing goals as a powerful tool for strengthening engagement, retention and productivity at work and at home.


A big THANK YOU to our generous LinkedIn connections whom we crowdsourced for perspectives and insight. Their passion about advancing wellbeing shows in how they live and lead. For you who like to dive into the science, other sources for this post include: