This is a tricky question, for reasons that will become apparent as you read on.
I have been thinking that one of the problems in using life satisfaction as a measure of human flourishing is that satisfaction implies contentment, and contentment may kill motivation to do things that are worthwhile. That has made me wonder whether or not it is possible for people to become too satisfied with their lives.
When I considered this issue in writing Free to Flourish, I concluded that despite such problems, life satisfaction might still be an adequate measure of human flourishing. I reached that conclusion on the basis of a comparison of different measures of subjective well-being by the British Office of National Statistics (ONS). The results showed a fairly high level of correlation (0.66) between responses when people were asked ‘How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ and ‘Overall, to what extent do you think the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’.
However, that doesn’t really answer the question of whether it is better for people to seek contentment or accomplishment. It may be possible that people obtain greater satisfaction from life when they seek worthwhile accomplishment than when they seek contentment. It may also be possible that contentment helps people to devote their lives to doing things that they consider to be worthwhile. Such ideas are neither new, nor necessarily inconsistent.
People may not actually need to choose between contentment and accomplishment. Perhaps we only think a choice has to be made because we tend to equate contentment with sloth and accomplishment with frenzied effort. It is not obvious that a choice has to be made if contentment means equanimity and accomplishment means achievement of a worthwhile goal.
My intuitions suggest to me that the important requirement for both contentment and accomplishment is for people to make conscious choices about their goals in life, rather than just drifting without purpose. As children, we are strongly influenced by parents, peers teachers etc. but as we grow to adulthood, we cannot fully flourish unless we make good use of our emotional and intellectual resources to manage our own lives.
So, where is the evidence that goal setting works? When I went looking for such evidence, the first thing I found was a post by Ray Williams entitled ‘Why goal setting doesn’t work’ on the ‘Psychology Today’ blog. Williams presents several different arguments to cast doubt on goal-setting, but his most powerful point seems to be the following:
‘The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns’.
That left me somewhat confused, so I took advantage of the fact that Jim Belshaw was conducting a discussion about goal setting on his blog, to ask participants what they thought about Ray Williams’ contribution. One of the participants, Evan Hadkins, who has a particular interest in personal development issues, made the following comments (slightly edited):
‘The goal setting literature does emphasise being realistic (the usual acronym being SMART). This of course is a bit of a cop out - if the goal isn't achieved then it wasn't realistic for one reason or another.
His reductionist pleasure-pain/fear psychology is wrong. (He is not alone in this error.)
I think he is a bit unfair to the goal setters. Lots of them talk about goals serving your wider values and choosing carefully what goals you aim for.
As to being in the now: Our longings, regrets, memories, fantasies, visions, plans and everything else all occur now. He doesn't understand this. He is not alone in this misunderstanding.
Overall I think it is pretty sloppy and confused. Lots of the goal setting literature emphasises worthwhile aims and being careful what you wish for. And his advice about intentions has all the problems of change that he levelled against goal setting. But I do agree with what I think is his basic point: goals should be realistic and serve worthwhile ends’.
I agree with Evan’s comments. Evan’s point about reductionist pleasure-pain/fear psychology brought to mind the ‘no failure just feedback’ idea that I picked up from NLP practitioners a few decades ago. The point is that our responses to evidence of failure to attain goals depend on our attitudes. We are unlikely to be devastated if we value the feedback we obtain as providing opportunities to consider how we can improve our future performance.
Evan’s point about choosing carefully what goals you aim for brought to mind the NLP concept of a ‘well-formed outcome’, with its emphasis on specifying the goal in a way you find compelling and running quality control checks to make sure that the desired goal is right for you in all circumstances of your life.
My answer to the question I raised initially is that people should be seeking contentment and accomplishment, making conscious choices about the kind of life they want to lead, by pursuing goals they consider worthwhile and feel passionate about. In my view it is not possible for individuals to be fully flourishing if they just drift aimlessly – unless, of course, drifting aimlessly is a goal they choose to pursue with a great deal of passion.