The Upward Spiral Of Pursuing Meaningful Goals

A british study from 2001 investigated how self-concordant goals affected goal attainment, wellbeing and continued pursuit of self-concordant goals after the goal had been reached.

What is self-concordant goals? They can simply be described as goals that the individual has chosen him/herself, based on some measure of alignment with ones own values, or personal enjoyments. According to the Self-Concordance Model, self-concordance is characterized by a feeling and sense of ownership over broad personal goals.

A total of 114 british first year - undergraduates were asked to write down how they thought they were settling in to university, what goals they had for the coming semester, and their current wellbeing. The researchers then divided the students goals by a 4-grade scale from least to most self-concordant, guided by another validated theory close to SCM.

The students attainment of personal goals and wellbeing were then measured again at the end of their semester: By then they were also asked to generate new goals for the coming semester, and repeat the whole procedure all over again.

What was found was that students that from the beginning chose goals that were aligned with core values and less dependent on external praise or punishment, had a significantly higher rate of goal achievement. Their felt adjustment to university also seemed to improve more. Perhaps even more interestingly, those same students were then more likely to again choose similar types of goals and then also achieved higher goal attainment in the second term. They also seemed to fare better with their grades, even though most of their goals were not really specific tog grades. Their level of wellbeing increased in the first term, to then maintain at that level for the second term.

Overall, there seemed to be a type of upward spiral, general in nature, for the students whose goals were self-concordant.

In a second smaller study, 94 undergraduates were also asked to rate - from a list of lots of goals - the degree to which they felt they had some personal ownership over 8 of the goals that they then had to pick, and again saw similar results. Students choosing goals that they felt they did more for some deep-rooted reason closely aligned to their values than for external reasons, again had higher goal attainment.

Though the study, by design, was unable to distinguish wether students that chose these types of goals were different in some meaningful way and therefore attained goals at a much higher rate, or if the differing goals themselves were the causal link, it says something about the impact differing types of goals can have.

Aligned with previous research on motivation and wellbeing overall, this study points to the importance of people getting to choose their own goals, for their own reasons. Not just so that their achievements are reached faster, but also because of the meaningful pursuit towards those goals - which can provide health benefits in and of itself.



 Sheldon, K. M., & Houser-Marko, L. (2001). Self-concordance, goal attainment, and the pursuit of happiness: Can there be an upward spiral? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 80 (1), 152-165.

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