Sunday, December 28, 2014

Goal Setting and the Meaningful Life

Before You Write Another Goal

Goals, Meaning, and Faith

Have you thought about goals for the new year? The question annoys some and engages others. And some use the occasion of a calendar event to assess their progress on life goals. Goals add meaning to life. Goals reflect a sense of purpose – so it’s no surprise that research on goals and purpose would include a study of the role of religion or spirituality. Even if you are not familiar with the scientific study of religion, you would probably find it easy to see that religion or spirituality, however defined, offers people a sense of purpose in life and ways to connect various life events so they make sense. Perhaps this is behind the popular book by Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life? And on the downside, as I have written elsewhere, there is a purpose driven death—seen in those who sacrifice their lives for a religiously motivated goal.

A favorite reference for writers on meaning and purpose is Victor Frankl and his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl wrote about three routes to a meaningful life (Galek et al., 2014, p. 1):

Victor Frankl: Three paths to a meaningful life

1. Create a work or perform some action
2. Experience something or have an experience with someone
3. Adopt an attitude to cope with “unavoidable suffering”

     (This is sometimes called the meaning triangle)

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have studied human needs related to meaning. Galek et al. summarize his focus on four basic needs.

Roy Baumeister: Four basic needs that lead to meaning.

1. We need to believe that life has meaning.
2. We need to believe that we can meet life’s challenges and reach our goals.
3. We need to believe we have worth.
4. We need to believe our actions are good and justified.

Kathleen Galek of  The Spears Research Institute in New York and her colleagues in various places studied the subject of religion, meaning, purpose, and mental health in a survey of 1453 U.S. adults. Their article provides an excellent summary of the relevant research and many interesting analyses of this extensive survey. The article is far too large to summarize here; however, I will adumbrate a few findings and include the reference below for those interested in details.

Three Ways to Link Faith, Meaning, and Mental Health

1. Religious commitment was significantly linked to fewer mental health symptoms.
2. Meaning and purpose in life were significantly linked to fewer mental health symptoms.
3. Meaning and purpose in life interact with religious commitment to explain mental health symptoms.

The interaction effect is important. Highly religious persons reporting a lack of meaning and purpose in life experience significantly more symptoms of social anxiety, paranoia, and obsession than either people who were less religious or those who were highly religious but who felt their lives had meaning and purpose.

Setting Goals: Four Ideas

1. Setting goals compatible with one’s faith enhances spiritual well-being and mental wellness. For example, a believer who commits to prayer and the study of scriptures enhances their identity as a spiritual person and increases their capacity to face the challenges of life from a faith perspective.

Self-help books and the support that comes from sermons and friends help in times of distress.

2. When a highly religious person is overwhelmed and finds little sustenance in their faith then their distress will be worse than those who never had such faith or those who can see the link between life events and their faith.

Millions of religious people suffer pain and loss each year. Looking back over the past year can be painful. And the idea of setting goals for another year can seem so futile. The whole experience of review and goal setting makes matters worse. Offering religious words of encouragement increases anger and despair. Clergy and friends would do well to keep quiet and demonstrate their faith in supportive actions.

3. Think about the ideas of Frankl and Baumeister when writing personal or career goals.

4. Psychotherapists would do well to read the Galek et al. article and think about the role of goal-setting in therapy and the importance of religion and spirituality.

I often read clinician notes indicating that the client did not find religion or spirituality relevant. I suggest that therapists may not be assessing the role of religion and spirituality in sufficient depth. People who struggle with depression and anxiety may not see how their faith can make matters better or worse. In the U.S., most people report they are Christians and for a substantial percentage of those, their Christian beliefs are important.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ― Viktor E. FranklMan's Search for Meaning

Related Posts


Galek, K., Flannelly, K. J., Ellison, C. G., Silton, N. R., & Jankowski, K. B. (2014). Religion, Meaning and Purpose, and Mental Health. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, doi:10.1037/a0037887

Related Articles

Sutton, G. W. (2014). Psychology of forgiveness: An overview of recent research linking
psychological science and Christian spirituality. Encounter, 11Academia Link 

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths by C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 273-274.   Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond by D. Clifton & E. Anderson]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 82-83.   Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2010). Spirituality and health: Considering spirituality and religion when planning
strategies for psychological assessment and treatment. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38,
132-133. Academia Link

Sutton, G. W., Jordan, K., & Worthington, E.L., Jr. (2014). Spirituality, hope, compassion, and
forgiveness: Contributions of Pentecostal spirituality to godly love. Journal of Psychology and 
Christianity, 33, 212-226. Link to Researchgate 

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