One key part of growing up is figuring out how to make your life goals line up with what's actually happening in your life. Not having clear life goals, or feeling like your goals are out of reach, can be super frustrating — and a new study says that it could have an impact on your mental health. Having life goals was linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, but if that's not you, there are ways to clarify and strengthen your goals.
The 18 year-long study, published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that people who were good at keeping up with goals, or who got better at sticking with their goals over time, had better mental health than those who didn't. Having a positive outlook on those goals was also helpful, while — importantly — having control over those goals did not.
"Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against, or decrease current levels of, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder," said lead study author Nur Hani Zainal, MS, from Pennsylvania State University. "Looking on the bright side of unfortunate events has the same effect because people feel that life is meaningful, understandable, and manageable."
“Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience, and optimism,” Zainal said in the press release. “Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from striving toward those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs.”
“Clinicians can help their clients understand the vicious cycle caused by giving up on professional and personal aspirations,” said Zainal. “Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief, but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in. Boosting a patient's optimism and resilience by committing to specific courses of actions to make dreams come to full fruition, despite obstacles, can generate more positive moods and a sense of purpose."
Attaining life goals isn't always possible — certain kinds of privilege can be a factor, or life just gets in the way — but being able to reframe those setbacks was associated with a reduced risk of these mental health issues. If you find that clarifying your life goals feels challenging, especially if you have been managing depression or anxiety for a while, there are some tools that can help. Learning how to choose your life goals, tracking how to accomplish them, and keeping up with your plan are skills that anyone can learn, according to Zen Habits. Think about goals you can pursue that feel meaningful to you, and then brainstorm a list of steps to help you get there. Breaking these up into even further chunks can make the process seem even more manageable — and give you a strong foundation if you ever need to pivot.
But you don’t have to have your whole life figured out right now. Experiment, try new things, and set some moderate goals to start. Working with a therapist can also help you gain clarity — both with what you want to experience, and how to clear any obstacles standing in your way. As you commit to achieving small, manageable goals in the short-term, your long-term dreams can become more and more clear to you. And, with practice, you’ll have a strategy in place to make those dreams a reality over time.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.