If you’re not happy with where you are in life as another year is about to end, it’s tempting to think you just set the wrong goals.
Maybe they were too big or too small. Maybe they weren’t specific enough or you shared them too early. Maybe they weren’t all that meaningful, so it was easy to lose focus.
But goals were never the reason you didn’t “make it” this year.
Goals just don’t help you create long-term happiness. Let alone sustain it.
They never have and they never will. To expect them to is to use the wrong tool for the right job.
From a high-level, rational perspective, goals seem like a good way of getting what you want. They’re tangible, trackable, and time-bound. They give you a point to move towards and a nudge to help you get there.
But, at the end of the day, what you want is happiness. And happiness is none of those things. It’s fuzzy, hard to measure, a spontaneous by-product of the moment. There’s no clear path that leads to it. And without orientation, nudging won’t help.
That’s why, on a day-to-day basis, goals often lead to anxiety, worry, and regret, rather than fulfillment, pride, and content.
Until we reach them, all they do is exert pressure from afar. Even worse, when we finally do, they disappear right away. Like a baseball in a home run, zipping out of sight.
The burst of relief is short-lived, “but this must be happiness,” we think. So we set a new, bigger goal, and the ball reappears on the horizon. Once again, far, far away. Once again, out of reach. And thus the pressure the cycle starts anew.
Harvard researcher Tal Ben-Shahar calls this “the arrival fallacy.” It’s the illusion that “reaching some future destination will bring lasting happiness.”
Goals can be the compass that drives you forward, but they can never make you enjoy the drive itself. A theme can.
James Altucher has lived by themes rather than goals for years. Your overall satisfaction with life isn’t determined by singular events, it’s the average of how you feel at the end of each day that counts.
Winning a marathon makes for one great party, but being diligent makes most of your hours at work feel fulfilling. That’s why scientists emphasize the importance of meaning over pleasure. One comes from your actions, the other from your results.
It’s the difference between passion and purpose, between seeking and finding.
A theme is an ideal you can use to charge your decisions. A standard you can hold all your actions against. Anything that increases that standard works.
A theme can be a single word. It can be a verb, a noun, or an adjective. ‘Commit,’ ‘growth,’ ‘healthy,’ these are all valid themes. So are ‘invest,’ ‘help,’‘kindness,’ and ‘gratitude.’
Themes are immune to your worry about tomorrow and indifferent to your regret of yesterday. All that matters is what you do today. Who you are this second and how you choose to live right now.
If you want to be kind, be kind today. If you want to be rich, commit today.
With a theme, the possibility of happiness lies at the end of each day and in how you behave rather than in a time far away and in what you’ll achieve.
Because even though it often feels like it, we don’t live life in our wins and losses, but every day. They may shock us, lift us up, and forever shape our memories, but it is neither our moments of trial nor those of triumph that define us, for these moments pass just as quickly as the many mundane minutes that lie in between.
And yet, each of those minutes is a chance to strive for better, which is why 99% of what you want out of life can and must be found along the way.
If you want to be healthy, choose health today. If you want to be grateful, say ‘thank you’ today.
Your potential for happiness is spread across time. It may not be spread equally, but themes make the most use of that potential. They make your goals a byproduct of your happiness instead of letting your happiness be a byproduct of your goals.
A goal asks: What do I want? A theme asks: Who am I? The answer to both will change over time, but one change disorients you, the other keeps your feet on the ground.
A goal you need to constantly visualize for it to materialize. A theme you internalize more whenever life prompts you to reflect on it.
A goal splits your actions into good and bad. A theme makes every action part of a masterpiece.
A theme is an internal variable you control. A goal is an external constant you don’t.
A theme keeps your mind focused on where you are. A goal distracts it to where you want to go.
A theme provides room to succeed amidst the chaos of life. A goal condemns you to order this chaos or deem yourself a failure.
A theme is looking for opportunities to create happiness in the present. A goal is shutting out those opportunities while waiting for a distant payday.
A theme asks: What went well today? A goal asks: Where did we get today?
When we use goals as our primary means of attaining happiness, we trade long-term life satisfaction for short-term motivation and reassurance.
Goals are sticky. They’re a clunky armor, weighing you down. You’ll just get stuck on the way and lament the journey. A theme is fluid. It sinks in and becomes part of who you are. It flows from the inside out, allowing you to change as you go.
A theme gives you a meaningful, achievable standard to live up to. Not once in a while, but every day. A way of being content with who you’re becoming, step by step, choice by choice, one act at a time, and finding peace in that.
No more waiting. Just decide who you want to be, then be that person.
A theme will bring something to your life no goal ever can: the feeling that who you are today, right here, right now, is enough.