In previous articles in this series, we discussed how your progress toward and away from attractive and aversive goals gives rise to different psychological states that can impact your well-being, like anxiety and depression.
Also, that the emotional byproducts of your efforts depend on their relative importance to you. Today we'll cover a different type of hierarchy: how down-to-earth or abstract your goals are.
At one of end of the spectrum lie goals like getting more sleep or avoiding sweets for the day. These kinds of goals (what some researchers, like W.D. McIntosh, refer to as “lower order”) are concrete and your progress toward them is easily gauged: you either eat a piece of cake or not.
At the other end are “higher order” goals like having a meaningful life, or the granddaddy of them all, to be happy. These types of goals are more nebulous and your progress toward them is less easily defined. Lower order goals are in sharp focus and higher order ones are more like diffuse longings.
Connecting heaven and earth
Human behavior occurs for a reason—typically, to avoid some kind of unpleasantness or to improve experience somehow. Motivation research bears this out: there is an ulterior motive for even the lowest of lower order goals.
You don’t deprive yourself of cake just for the heck of it. You do it to lose weight, feel healthier, look better, manage your blood sugar, or any number of personal reasons. But your lower order goal is “linked” (again, using McIntosh’s term) to one that is at least somewhat higher order.
But some people take this behavior to the extreme, linking their lower order goals to very high order goals. For instance, Person A may abstain from cake to lose weight and be healthier.
Person B may abstain from cake to lose weight, to have an improved physical appearance and better odds of finding a mate, so that he may have a family and thereby achieve his vision of the ideal life, and be happy.
So, your goals vary not just in terms of their priority over others, but in how much power you give them to influence your overall feelings of well-being. For people who consistently link lower order goals to the highest order ones via long chains (I'll just call them "High Linkers"), even the most mundane daily activities can carry enormous emotional potential energy.
Whereas Person A’s relenting and eating cake at the office party merely puts her a little off pace in her weight loss and health goal (and maybe not even that), Person B’s indiscretion, to him, means having taken a step away from a happy and fulfilled life. Long chains reaching to the stars strain under the weight of high expectations.
What’s more, the “higher” and therefore more vague and abstract the goal is to which you're linking, the less likely you are to hit what you’re aiming at even if you achieve the lower order one.
Whereas abstaining from a piece of cake is directly and clearly related to Person A's weight loss goal, more likely than not, the chain reaction that Person B is counting on—that his abstinence will lead to a happy and fulfilling life—is not likely to materialize anytime soon.
That is, the more intermediate links in the chain, the more unstable it is, since there is more potential for things not to work out as hoped. (Think of trying to balance a stack of three plates versus a stack of 10.)
At best, Person B will be left feeling that he's made a smidgen of progress toward his higher order goal, and he'll probably not appreciate what he actually did accomplish.
The unintended chain reaction
The moral of this story is that the higher up the chain you link your actions, the less satisfaction you are likely to enjoy from your efforts, and the more likely you’ll be left pining for the same ambiguous goal next week or next year.
There is a good deal of research around this issue. In studies of dyed-in-the-wool High Linkers, there are indeed chain reactions, but not the type they were hoping for. People tend to ruminate about higher order goals more than lower order ones and, as a result, High Linkers ruminate a lot.
And people who ruminate tend to be depressed (probably because it's rare that one definitively achieves an abstract, higher order goal). People who are depressed tend to have lower feelings of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and motivation, all of which impair performance.
Which, in turn, motivates High Linkers to link even more lower order goals to the lofty ones, in order to dig out of the hole they find themselves in. You can see the problem.
What you can do
Researchers like McIntosh suggest that one thing High Linkers can try is to link their higher order goals to lower order ones that are easier to identify and achieve. In other words, to shorten their motivational chains.
For instance, if Person B's happiness and life satisfaction were linked to being healthy rather than having a wife and children, then he would enjoy progress toward a meaningful, higher order goal with each piece of cake declined, and each session of exercise.
The implication isn't that you shouldn't consider intermediate goals (i.e., that Person B shouldn't want to be married). It's that keeping your chain simpler will help you see progress and feel better more often.
Just changing your beliefs about what will make you happy can be easier said than done, though. Plus, although this approach would help you feel better by streamlining your motivational path, you'd still be directing your daily activities toward a lofty, ambiguous goal, and therefore remain especially vulnerable to rumination and depression.
But there is something you can do to become less of a High Linker overall.
If the connection between rumination and depression sounds familiar from your readings on this site, it's because I've discussed the same dynamics with respect to the perils of being mindless, versus the benefits of mindfulness.
By cultivating a more present-focused relationship to your experience with mindfulness meditation, you'll automatically be practicing appreciation of your current achievements en route to your final destination.
As a "Low Linker," you'll be linking satisfaction to lower order goals by default, because you'll be operating on a lower order yourself, and not be as caught in the depressing, cognitive maze of the higher order. Likewise, you'll condition yourself to hold ruminative thoughts more lightly (and ultimately ruminate less), and thereby improve your mood and related qualities like self-esteem and motivation.
In our previous exercises you already identified goals that are meaningful to you. Now you can set them aside, if you'd like to be more of a Low Linker. (You won't forget your lofty goals—I promise.)
With a more mindful approach, you can just put one foot in front of the other, let yourself get there when you get there, and enjoy the scenery along the way.