Why You’re Unhappy Though You’re Achieving Your Goals

by Ernest Armah

Now ever since this money came

Been nothing but stress

Sometimes I wish I could trade in my success

Y’all look at me and say boy you’ve been blessed

But y’all don’t see the inside of my unhappiness

                                                            Robert Kelly, I wish

At the center of human industry is happiness. In the words of Aristotle, “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. In our pursuit of happiness, we often set certain goals (the attainment of which would make us happy). However, the mere setting and achievement of goals won’t make you happy in the long haul.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Eleventh edition) defines the word goal, as an aim or desired result. The importance of goal setting cannot be exaggerated. Brian Tracy was right in saying,

“your ability to set goals is the master skill of success. Goals unlock your positive mind and release ideas and energy for goal attainment. Without goals, you simply drift, and flow in the currents of life. With goals, you fly like an arrow straight and true to your target”.

And nothing is more exciting than the attainment of a goal.

At the tail end of The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) has to fight back tears when his Manager informed him that he has won the coveted full-time broker position. He descended the staircase on the fringes of the firm, twitching his fingers followed by a clutching of his hands in awe. Most of us have experienced a similar state before.

But such states, of happiness, are short-lived unless it is tied to something beyond material gratification. Psychologist Philip Brickman and his colleagues did a study on the levels of happiness people had after winning the lottery. They observed that after a short time (a month), “lottery winners return to their base levels of well-being – if they were unhappy before winning, they will remain so…”.

An even more compelling observation is that most of us are yet to have a clear sense of what makes us happy. According to Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we often err in predicting our future emotional states. He states,

we think that a new house, a promotion, or a publication would make us happy, when in fact these achievements only lead to a temporary spike in our levels of well-being. The same applies to negative experiences. The emotional pain that comes with the end of a romantic relationship, losing a job, or the failure of our political candidate does not last long – we soon return to being as happy or as unhappy as we were prior to the experience”.

So, as you can see, the pursuit of happiness doesn’t end with the achievement of goals per se. The path to a truer, long-lasting state of happiness requires us to first and foremost, understand the proper role of goals (dreams, ambitions, aims, desires) in our lives. So what is the proper role of goals?

In his book, Happier – Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2007), Tal Ben-Shahar makes the case that the proper role of goals is to liberate us. That is, goals should release us from feelings of incapability, helplessness, doubt, fear, disappointment, and failure. Having a proper understanding of goals helps us to set goals that would make us happy. So then, the question follows. What goals are key to our happiness?

Goals that promote growth, connection and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and popularity. Your personal development is crucial to fulfillment. You never know what you are capable of until you challenge yourself with something unfamiliar or beyond your comfort zone. In respect of connection and contribution, your talent and abilities should be directed toward something larger than yourself. We were not born for work; we were born for meaning. Your efforts should not only elicit currency notes.

Other goals key to our wellbeing and happiness are those that are interesting and personally important to us rather than goals we feel forced or pressured to pursue. There is a saying that you can force the horse to a river, but you can’t force it to drink. Imposed goals produce grief and dissatisfaction in life. And people tend to be machines rather than humans in the pursuit of happiness for others, other than themselves.

Twentieth-century scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell was asked whether he ever had the sense of “being helped by hidden hands”. His response was this;

All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time—namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be”.

So it follows that “wealth, fame, admiration, and all other goals are subordinate and secondary to happiness; whether our desires are material or social, they are means toward one end: happiness”.



Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier – Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York, NY: Mc-Graw Hill.