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The Science of Good Magic

I realize that all this sounds a little woo-woo, but psychological research on happiness backs up my strategy. Over and over, researchers studying happiness have found that the situational elements people crave—money, social status, possessions—don't reliably lead to an experience of well-being. By contrast, learning to find joy in the present moment (a.k.a. focusing on experiences you truly want in your life) increases life satisfaction, improves health, and allows us to live longer, more fulfilling lives.

My clients form my own database of sorts, convincing me that good goal-setting magic is (to use the social science terms) robust and valid. For example, when I asked Ilsa to go back in time and imagine what she once thought she'd get from a successful business, she described herself with the adjectives relaxed, joyful, and secure (ironically, the demands of her wildfire success made her feel tense, joyless, and insecure). When she scanned her life for activities and relationships that made her feel aligned with those adjectives, she found them everywhere: in gardening, reading novels, playing with her niece. "Damn!" she told me. "I'd already succeeded before I succeeded!" Indeed.

In Sue's case, remembering how she'd expected motherhood to make her feel yielded the adjectives loved, rejuvenated, and emotionally replenished. She realized that her noun-verb goal (having a baby who's beautiful and also colicky) actually created the opposite of her adjective goal—she felt unappreciated, haggard, and drained. It turned out that her magical adjectives described the way she felt when connecting with old friends. Both Ilsa and Sue managed to give more attention and time to the things that evoked the feelings they really wanted. (That's the beauty of adjective-based goals: They can work even when you're already suffering the consequences of unwise noun-verb spells.) Ilsa carved out time for reading and gardening; Sue put the baby in the bouncy seat and caught up with friends on Facebook.

These efforts helped Ilsa and Sue work and parent better, and handle the difficulties conjured by their original goals, all of which eased my fairy godmother guilt.

In other words, we lived happily ever after. So if you find yourself longing for some idealized goal, take a moment to go fishing for adjectives. Then use them to identify the aspects of your life that are already drawing you toward your heart's desires. Focusing on these people and activities will lead you gently toward even more fulfilling experiences. One day you may find yourself in a situation more interesting and delightful than anything you ever imagined. Listen closely and you'll hear my annoying little voice in your head, whispering, Bippity-boppity-boo.

More Goal-Setting Strategies From Martha Beck Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).

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