Goal-Setting and Emotions

Goal-Setting and Emotions

Thanking about setting some goals for this year? Psychologists have learned that how we describe a goal actually influences the emotional experience of pursuing that goal. Specifically, they have identified three types of personal goals we humans set, and discovered that each goal type has its own emotional profile.

Mastery Goals. These are goals that begin with, “I want to learn…” We can finish that sentence in many ways – with whatever we want to know more about.

I want to learn… more about the relationship between nutrition and health

I want to learn… more about managing stress with meditation

I want to learn… how to play the Native American Flute

Emotionally, people who pursue Mastery Goals experience high levels of enjoyment, low levels of boredom, and low levels of anger.

Performance – Approach Goals. Here, goals begin with “I want to be able to….”

I want to be able to… prepare healthy food I can enjoy eating

I want to be able to… feel calm and accepting of other’s mistakes

I want to be able to… join a flute group and become more social.

As we begin pursuing Approach Goals, most of us feel optimism and hope. When we reach the goal, we feel pride and a sense of accomplishment. If we don’t reach the goal, we feel disappointed.

 Performance – Avoidance Goals. These goals begin with “I must stop doing…”

             I must stop… eating so much sugar

I must stop… getting so angry over nothing.

I must stop… spending so much time on social media.

As we set Avoidance Goals, most of us feel anxious, cautious, even hopeless. If we reach the goal, we only feel relief, not the pride that follows reaching Approach Goals. And if we don’t reach an Avoidance Goal, we don’t feel merely disappointed; we typically feel shame, anger, or failure.

Further, the intensity of the emotions associated with pursuing Avoidance Goals is much stronger than the emotional intensity involved with Approach Goals – as much as three times more intense.

One more thing about Avoidance Goals. In general, there is less symptom improvement, and there is less improvement in well-being than there is with achieving Approach Goals – even when the goals are largely reached.

So…want to feel more hopeful about the goals you set? And more satisfied when you reach them? The researchers below suggest we can do that – simply by giving more attention to how we frame those goals.

John Robertson



Elliot, A. J, & Church, M. A. (2002). Client articulated avoidance goals in the therapy context. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 49(2), 243-254

Pekrun, R., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2006). Achievement goals and discrete achievement emotions: A theoretical model and prospective test. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 583-597

Pekrun, R., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2009). Achievement goals and achievement emotions: Testing a model of their joint relations with academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(1), 115-135.

Wollburg, A., & Braukhaus, C. (2010). Goal setting in psychotherapy: The relevance of approach and avoidance goals for treatment outcome. Psychothearpy Research, 20(4), 488-494.



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