Positive or Negative Goals: Which is Best for Stress?

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

You may not consider yourself much of a goal setter, but it's something you do everyday. For example, getting into work 15 minutes early so that you can prepare for a meeting or beat the crowds is typical of everyday goal setting. The time and place you go for lunch, or how long you'll exercise for, are in many ways as significant as the decision you'll make to go either go for a promotion or move to a new location. Smaller daily goals help feed into and inform the bigger ones. But are your drawn to positive or negative goals?

Goals say something about our motivational state and broadly speaking we can think of them as either approach or** avoidance** goals.

What's the Difference?Think of approach goals as more desirable and positive. For example, "save just a little more and I can afford that vacation or that car." "Work systematically and diligently and I'll get good grades." These are the things that bring us pleasure or reward.** Avoidance** goals refer to the negatives in life. These are things that we feel will hurt us in some way. Maybe we avoid those exams because it avoids the possibility of failure. Perhaps we don't go on dates because it avoids the humiliation of rejection.

How Do These Link to Stress?The problem with avoidance goals is they can appear to address issues by simply not confronting them. However, they are also quite stressful because the more issues we avoid, so the toll on our general well-being increases. Anyone with a phobia knows only too well the amount of nervous energy they expend monitoring situations and negative possibilities. There are certain parallels between phobias and goal avoidance in life. The most that can be said for avoidance goals is they may lead to the absence of something negative. If we contrast this with approach goals, the focus is always on the potential for achieving the presence of something positive, energizing and enriching.** Proper Goal Setting to Overcome Stress**

Goal setting isn't really about mapping out your life, although it could be. It isn't even about the goal so much as the general direction. When we decide to do something, that is we decide for ourselves, we tap into three important human drives:

1. We make the decisions about what we're going to do and how we're going to do it. This is about personal control and the sense we have that we're acting for ourselves.

2. Our actions reinforce our need to feel confident and to give a sense of mastery over what we're doing. This sense of personal competence, coupled with a sense of personal control is cemented by the way we engage with others.

3. Social connection is that most basic human need to feel they are part of something bigger and of being able to relate to others. It's the sense of security and belonging that comes with human contact but in ways that allow us to feel our own choices matter and are not being dictated by others.

Avoidance tends to be aself-perpetuating for some because it can appear the easier option. But the cumulative effect is ultimately debilitating because we miss out on life. Approach goals can also be self-perpetuating, but in a more positive direction. The more you see yourself achieving the more you'll want to do, and the more content and enriched you'll feel.

Tapping into goals and decisions that satisfy the three human drives may help you minimize avoidance goals and ultimately, stress.  So, the question is, "how do you plan to achieve greater control, competence and connection in your life?"

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