Having #Goals Really Does Help Your Health

When your set your sights on the future, you just may lower your risk of depression and anxiety.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

#SquadGoals, #RelationshipGoals… #LifeGoals? Yep—and as it turns out, focusing on that last one may help you lead a happier life and avoid certain mental health disorders.

People who persevere toward their life goals tend to have less anxiety and depression, as well as fewer panic attacks—regardless of how much control they felt they had over their fate, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association. The report, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, followed thousands of Americans over 18 years.

Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can work two ways: It can build resilience against major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder-- or it can decrease current level of those conditions, said lead study author Nur Hani Zainal, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Pennsylvania State University, in a press release.

Anxiety, depression, and panic disorders are serious mental health problems that can negatively impact many aspects of your life. For example, people with anxiety disorders, the most common mental health issues in the United States, deal with extreme and persistent worry that can interfere with their ability to lead the lives they want, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Major depressive disorder, which is the most commonly diagnosed form of depression, leads people to experience extremely low moods, loss of interest in things they once enjoyed, and a slew of other negative symptoms. Panic disorder is less common, affecting about 2% to 3% of Americans per year, but comes with the distressing symptom of sudden panic attacks.

"Often, people with these disorders are stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns and behaviors that can make them feel worse," said co-author of the study Michelle G. Newman, Ph.D., in the press release. "We wanted to understand what specific coping strategies would be helpful in reducing the rates."

Of the 3,294 study participants, the average age was 45, most of them were white, and just under half were college-educated. At three times over the 18-year study, researchers collected data about mental-health diagnoses and asked participants to rate themselves in three areas: goal persistence ("When I encounter problems, I don't give up until I solve them"), positive reappraisal ("I can find something positive, even in the worst situations"), and self-mastery ("I can do just anything I really set my mind to").

Those who had higher levels of optimism and goal persistence during the first of the three assessments had less depression, anxiety, and panic attacks over the course of the study. However, researchers did not find that self-mastery or a sense of control had any impact on the participants’ mental health in this study—perhaps because these are more stable traits over time, the researchers suggest.

"Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience, and optimism," Zainal said. "Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs."

Zainal and Dr. Newman hope psychotherapists will use these findings when working with people who struggle with these mental health disorders.

"Clinicians can help their clients understand the vicious cycle caused by giving up on professional and personal aspirations. Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in," said Zainal.

Want to get serious about pursuing your goals? The first step may be to sit down and write out those goals actually are. Consider the “SMART” goal approach, says HealthCentral writer Mike Veny, a patient advocate for depression and mental health. This popular strategy focuses on fleshing out your goals to make them more achievable based on this acronym:

S for Specific

M for Measurable

A for Achievable

R for Realistic

T for Time-bound

“One of the ways that I've improved my mental health is through goal-setting, through which I can track progress,” Mike says in his article on how to set SMART goals. “It's a great tool to experience some small wins. These small victories helped me to create better lifestyle habits and improve my self-esteem.”

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.