The Goal Lie

Marketing is smart. Companies try to sell you an ideal (preferably one their customers can never achieve by using said product alone). They are selling you abstract concepts like acceptance, love and happiness.

The reason this is a genius business model is because these are things, at a basic level, for which we long. If we were not part of the herd (and accepted) as prehistoric humans, we would starve or be eaten by a predator. Similarly, love is included in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Love and happiness, from an early age, are ingrained in our psyches as the ultimate boon: we do everything in our lives in the pursuance of love and happiness.

The secret to life, though, is that happiness, love and acceptance are not goals. They are not an end destination. Instead, they are states of being. They are choices. They already exist within you if you choose to believe them.

Everything that happens to us is neutral and it is our job to choose what we make these things mean. As an English teacher, sometimes students fail my class. I used to make that mean that they were irresponsible lazy kids or that my teaching was ineffective, that I just wasn’t engaging and interesting enough to capture their attention and garner their efforts. 

Graphic by Alana Van Der Sluys

What I’ve learned, however, is I was choosing to make it mean something negative. Now, instead of making the students’ failings mean something about me, I choose to look at what the students’ successes mean about me. I may not affect every student, but I have undoubtedly and positively affected many students. For the students that are failing, this is an opportunity to have honest and open conversations with them, to show them that they have a teacher that genuinely cares about their well being, not just their grades, and expresses a genuine willingness to help in whatever way I can. 

I will not be happier when every student passes my class. I will not be happier when every student likes me as a person or a teacher. I will be happy as a teacher when I choose happiness regardless of what may go wrong in the day, in a lesson, with a student. 

In the same way, I was never happy no matter how much weight I lost in my eating disorder. It never made me happy because happiness isn’t a destination the way a particular number on the scale is. I had to choose to be happy, at the weight I was at, in order to be happy. 

Not only is happiness a state of being, it also cannot be a destination because no feeling is static. It’s not like you arrive at happiness and then game over, you win. The destination of life is death and I know that sounds morbid, but anything in between life and death —our mistakes, our triumphs, our experiences–those are all life, those are all the journey. 

So when we have goals, we shouldn’t be banking on them to secure everlasting happiness, success, love or acceptance. Instead,we should ask ourselves: What will be the same in our lives when we reach our goal and what will change? 

If your goal is to lose 25 pounds, what will be the same in your life? Will you still not feel enough? Will you still be as successful at work as you are now? Will your children still drive you crazy? Will your husband magically always remember to do the dishes after dinner?

And this is not to deter you from having goals. I think the point of life is to explore new avenues and experiences and challenge ourselves to get the most out of our human experience; but being honest about why we have those goals and whether our pursuits will truly get us those goals is crucial to explore. 

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