Female asian doctor looking at a goal chart with post-it notes

CONSULT February 2020

Main Content

How positive goal-setting can have healthful advantages

Published on Saturday, February 1, 2020

By: Ruth Cummins

Dr. Julie Schumacher keeps a sticky note on her computer with a word of the day that never changes.

The word: kindness. Her goal: Every day, to show those she meets a little love, from a snack for someone who is hungry to a smile for a coworker who is having a rotten day.

Portrait of Julie Schumacher

“Acts of kindness promote happiness,” said Schumacher, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Having that Post-it note on my computer reminds me that I need to always be thinking about what I can do for someone today.”

That simple act not only brings those around her happiness, but it also brings happiness to Schumacher. It is a simple but long-term goal she has set for herself, a task that is not short-lived, but one with longer lasting implications.

Setting goals for your own happiness can affect your health and well-being. The goal does not have to be tailored to your physical health, though – for example, swearing off fast food, or going to the gym three times a week. Rather, Schumacher said goals should be personal to you and what will bring you happiness.

“You can set goals around practices that have been shown to bring happiness,” some of them backed by research, she said. “Some might be gratitude, exercise, meditation, religious practices.”

And some might be more practical, like putting your keys in the exact same place when you get home so that you don’t have to scramble to find them when you’re in a rush to get out the door.

Schumacher recommends a research-backed strategy for setting goals, then following them through without an end point if the goal calls for it. The strategy is called WOOP, or “Wish, Outcome, Obstacles and Plan.” It also can be called into play for goals that someone might pursue, but stall out somewhere in the process.

“The wish is a general goal: What do I want to do?” Schumacher said. “Say you want to adhere to a recommendation that your doctor has for your health, and a specific outcome, such as taking your medications every day, at the same time.

“What are your obstacles? If you are away from home, do you tend to forget? If you get busy with kids, do you forget to take them? ‘P’ is to make a plan. Carry a pillbox in your purse in case you are away from home and forget. See if there’s a way to shift taking your medication at night after the kids are in bed.”

Portrait of Josie Bidwell

Go into the WOOP “by always identifying your ‘why,’” advised Dr. Josie Bidwell, a nurse practitioner and associate professor of preventive medicine. “From my perspective, most goals aren’t achieved because we don’t connect the goal to our purpose. You should be able to clearly and concisely state the reason why you want to make a change, and what drives your action.”

It’s easy to slip back into the behavior you’re trying to change, Schumacher said.

“The important thing is not to get discouraged, and recognize that’s a normal part of being human. Sometimes, the things that are bad for us are the easiest to do.”

People sometimes set a goal to lose weight, “but when the number on the scale is the only thing driving the behavior, it can be discouraging,” Bidwell said. “So aside from the scale number, ask yourself why you want to lose weight. Is it to have more energy to play with your kids? To decrease your knee pain? To go on vacation?”

Reset goals that aren’t going well and learn from your experiences, Schumacher said.

“If it was working really well, what were the barriers that came up when you stopped? How do I change my plan?”

It is important to rethink a quest for happiness through goal setting if you struggle with chronic feelings of unhappiness, Schumacher advised.

“These feelings might be an indication of anxiety, depression or trauma that might benefit from mental health treatment.”

Make your goals uplifting, she said.

“Frame them positively. Instead of thinking in terms of wanting to stop something, think about what you do want – for example, eating more fruits and vegetables.”

Finally, realize that meeting a particular goal might have no end.

“Things that make us happy in the short term might be sitting on the couch, watching a movie and eating potato chips,” Schumacher said. “You think you might be satisfied with that, but it doesn’t work that way

“Look beyond your physical well-being to your emotional well-being. Human beings have a drive to improve and grow. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s important to the person.”

The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.