Goal-Oriented and Process-Oriented Living

It’s a platitude that the ultimate goal of human life is happiness. Another perhaps lesser known feature of happiness is that it’s a side-effect of something else, e.g., actions, events, things (that we obtain), goals that we achieve, etc. But after this, disagreement sets in about what particular things produce happiness. For some people knowledge produces happiness; while for others professional success produces happiness; or still further, one might think that some material object like money produces happiness. I’m not here to say that either of these things is better or worse when it comes to producing happiness. Instead I want to talk about two general approaches — means — of achieving happiness. The first is a goal-oriented approach; the second, process-oriented.

First off, the goal-oriented approach. A goal-oriented approach is the more common method in our culture for achieving happiness. Indeed it seems as if we’re surrounded by messages alleging that the achievement of this or that new goal will make us happy. Whether it’s documenting and pursuing specific goals, e.g., categorized by one year, five years or 10 years; or a new career, a new workout routine, a new diet, happiness can be obtained by achieving these relevant goals. These traditional goals do have merit. For example, when we’re in pursuit of a goal and encounter some obstacle, typically the fact that we have a goal provides some motivational inertia for us to push through the obstacle; and without the goal, obstacles tend to derail our course of action. And while having some goals seems inescapable, it also seems that our culture overestimates the value of goals that, frankly, might be remote (in time) or might be unlikely to achieve. Moreover, people tend to find it difficult to wake up and get motivated every day to achieve some goal that is so far off in the future or whose achievement is simply unlikely. Such a predicament doesn’t make for much happiness.

Fortunately, there’s another process that tends to produce happiness that doesn’t depend on achieving any goals. This other approach to achieving happiness is sometimes called a process-oriented approach. The process-oriented approach to living simply prescribes maintaining a small but important set of habits that are practiced regularly. Most of these habits will be daily habits, but some may be for some other short-term period of time, e.g., weekly. The process-oriented person believes that in order to achieve and sustain happiness they need only do the following sorts of things everyday: do something active every day, eat healthy (for the most part), engage in some meaningful hobby, connect with friends and family, etc. Doing something active, for example, may involve any number of things from simply taking a walk to participating in some more organized class such as yoga, etc. And doing some meaningful hobby, for example, may involve reading, writing, playing music, mediating, crafting, etc. In fact, meditation is the ultimate non-goal oriented activity. Melli O’Brien writes:

There is no hurry to get anywhere or achieve anything — there is no goal or finish line ‘out there’ in the future. The goal is to be fully present, in the moment and to be fully engaged in only whatever is presenting itself in the here and now. Any idea of striving for some future goal will only impede your practice. You may have come to mindfulness practice in the hopes to achieve certain results (like more happiness or health), but let go of these desires during your practice and simply allow this moment and where your at to be enough.

For the process-oriented person, the important thing isn’t to set some new goal that terminates sometime in the future but to make sure to do a handful of important activities every day. And because process-oriented living is grounded in regular (daily) activities it’s plausible that it is better at producing a sustained or continuous sense of happiness than the goal-oriented approach, which tends to produce happiness when the relevant goal is achieved, i.e., less frequently than the happiness generated by a process-oriented approach.

Last, it should be stressed that the goal-oriented and process-oriented approaches to life aren’t mutually exclusive whatsoever. In fact, while there may be some for whom all of their happiness is derived from goal-oriented actions, I know of no one who has no goals and derives all of their happiness from process-oriented living. The point here is that process-oriented living tends to be overlooked, despite the fact that it can produce and sustain a high degree of personal happiness.

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ABD in Philosophy, Senior Public Policy Analyst building freelance writing portfolio. Collaborate, contact me at srmillard@gmail.com IG @philo_mentoring