How to Achieve Your Goals, Step 4: Goal Hierarchies and Your Emotions

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So far in our series on setting and achieving goals we’ve covered some of the basics, like how your attractive and aversive feedback loops exist to move you toward a desired new situation or away from situations you don’t like, respectively.

Intuitively, it makes sense that no matter which type of goal it is, you’ll experience positive or negative emotions depending on how you’re doing with it. If you have an attractive goal of reaching a certain body weight, for instance, how far you are from your goal can give rise to positive or negative feelings.

However, as we discussed last time, what influences your feelings more than your distance from your goal is the difference between how quickly you're progressing and how quickly you want to be progressing.

The same holds true with an aversive goal: your distance from the things you don’t want and, more importantly, the speed at which you’re moving from them, also give rise to positive and negative emotions.

Some theorists contend that the emotions that arise from your goal-seeking activities are the primary factors in your overall feelings of well-being, so this is important stuff.

The emotional byproducts of attraction and aversion

While both attractive and aversive goals have the potential to yield good or bad feelings, they aren’t the same type of good and bad feelings. Researchers Charles Carver and Michael Scheier have developed a compelling model for the way the two differ.

Consider your motivation for having an aversive goal: to get away from something that is distasteful or bothering you in some way. If successful, you’ll experience a sense of relief, while if you’re not, you’re likely to feel anxiety because you’re stuck in an uncomfortable situation.

Likewise, when you’re pursuing an attractive goal, you’re chasing a desirable situation, so it stands to reason that if you achieve it, you will experience a sense of happiness—elation, even—versus depression if you are unsuccessful, because you’re not where you’d like to be yet.

So, the attractive or aversive nature of your goals determines whether the emotions you’re experiencing as you pursue them will emerge along the spectrum of anxiety vs. relief, or depression vs. elation. 

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As you may recall from our first article in this series, aversive and attractive goals don’t generally exist by themselves, however; they naturally tend to fall into complementary pairs. (Sometimes they don’t, as with “rogue” aversions, and you have to take deliberate steps to find complementary attractive goals.)

If you’re operating between one of these pairs—away from something and toward something else—then you’re moving along a spectrum of emotion containing elements of elation and relief vs. anxiety and depression.

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How goal hierarchies keep you sane

By now your head might be spinning. Right now you're holding multiple attractive and aversive goals all at once, with different positions and rates of progress relative to each, and corresponding emotions emerging as a result. That sounds like a big emotional mess.

How do you manage to feel anything with all that going on? Or perhaps more to the point, how do you manage to not feel everything all at once? In any one moment, you probably have a single predominant emotion—so where are all the others?

It’s true that if you were pursuing your aspirations on a two-dimensional playing field, you’d be overwhelmed by all kinds of conflicting emotions all the time, and maybe feel paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. Fortunately, your mind has a way of simplifying things for you.

This happens in more than one way, but let's start with the most basic: all of your goals are not created equal. Some are more important to you than others, and the more important your goal is, the more its pursuit can affect your feelings.

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For instance, let’s say you volunteer for an experiment I’m conducting in which you need to sort a bag of jelly beans by color within a certain amount of time.

During the experiment, if you sense that you’re running out of time to complete the task, you may well feel some negative emotions because your rate of progress is slower than desired, and you like meeting expectations, perhaps.

But sorting jelly beans quickly—perhaps especially, someone else's beans—doesn’t matter much to you in the grand scheme of things. I constructed the goal for you, it’s only relevant within my laboratory, and it's much more relevant to me than to you.

Contrast this response with the feelings you may have if your goal was to be married within the next year or two, but you have no significant other at this time. The goals—both of being married, and the time-related meta-goal of being married soon—are of your own creation. They also impact a major dimension of your life and could be tied to your feelings of self-worth.

If this attractive goal happens to be paired with a complementary aversive one (say, wanting to avoid the stigma that you perceive being attached to being single at a certain age), then there is the potential for depression and anxiety that could affect you much more deeply than sorting my jelly beans slowly.

Seeing your motivational forces in 3-D

So, achieving a goal isn’t simply a matter of forward and backward motion because the field you’re playing on is simultaneously moving up and down. This vertical dimension is the hierarchy of your goals, and it isn't set in stone. Your goals adjust in real time, reflecting what is salient to you in each moment, in response to your experiences in the world.

Your marriage goals, as all-important as they may be right now, would likely slip from awareness instantly if you were surprised by a snarling tiger or I offered you a million-dollar prize for quickly sorting my jelly beans. In your day-to-day life, threats to your physical safety and million-dollar surprises are rare, but your goals change in priority all the time, just the same.

When hunger pangs, itches, or an argument with a coworker come into sharp focus, they create various approach or avoidance motivations. Then you set goals that momentarily trump your other ones, until the situation that gave rise to them is no longer the most salient part of your experience. But other types of goals tend to be more enduring, jumping into the "top priority" position whenever possible.

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These are the ones that relate to your sense of self: the identity that you feel you have and/or aspire to. These more abstract goals often involve character traits or major aspects of your life, and can be the most fundamental in terms of your personality and well-being. They are important to the deepest part of you and are capable of yielding the emotions that resonate to your core.

Therefore, exploring the third dimension of your goals allows you to see beneath the surface. Since I previously asked you to identify the attractive and aversive motivators that are relevant to an area of life you’d like to work on, chances are that everything you’ve come up with so far is at least somewhat important to your sense of self. But can you fine-tune your assessment at all? You can even look for signs from your unconscious.

For instance, I presume you’ve been working with diagrams of your loops on paper. (If you’ve built a three-dimensional model, please send me a picture!) Are there ones that you’ve placed more prominently on the page? In larger handwriting? What about the ones on the edge of the page? Are they less important to you? Or is it just more difficult to acknowledge them?

Also, because emotions like anxiety, depression, relief, and elation flow from your motivations, how strongly you feel them can provide clues about what matters most to you (including things you aren't consciously aware of, which could be useful in Step 1). Remember the times you've had the strongest feelings and consider the circumstances in which they arose.

As with the other exercises we’ve done, there are no right or wrong answers—this is just a time to take it easy on yourself and see what comes to the surface.

Next: How to Achieve Your Goals, Step 5: Keeping Your Feedback Loops Running Smoothly