Life Lists: Goal Achievement and Happiness

As we mentioned in this post, it seems that Seligman’s 3 pillars of happiness and well-being (positive emotion, engagement and meaning) may soon be joined by two more, namely positive relationships and positive achievement.

I doubt many would argue about positive relationships being a corner-stone of happiness and well-being, although you might be interested to know that there is remarkably little published scientific research into this field. But the importance of positive achievements seems to have people divided.

In the business world, goal-setting has been the back-bone (along with a smidgen of good luck) of company and personal prosperity since the dawn of time. Call it strategy, business planning or personal development planning, it’s all about creating a new, more successful future. To some, particularly coaches, goal-setting and accomplishment is vital, it’s what successful coaching is all about. When we were training as coaches, one of the first things we learnt was how to help clients (or coachees) define where they want to be by setting their goals clearly and then to help them achieve these goals. After all, how can you get where you want to go unless you know where you’re going in the first place?

Goal-setting is also making its way into normal life; you will no doubt have noticed yourself the proliferation of books and articles about so-called Life Lists, those 101-things-you-must-do/see/experience- before-you-die type lists. Earlier in the year for example, the New York Times published an article called 10 Things To Do Before I Finish This Article. If you google ‘Life Lists’, you’ll retrieve millions of entries, such as the original, which invites you to publish your own Life List and which contains everything from the quirky (“build a trebuchet”) to the frankly quite dull (“organise my filing cabinet”). You can get Life List websites which list the things you need to consider when making your list. Curiously, in my google search for UK Life Lists, three of the top ten were by bird-watchers; it left me wondering whether twitchers are happier than your average UK resident. Perhaps that could be the subject of my MAPP dissertation…..

There are even people who make their living out of their Life List, such as John Goddard, aka ‘The World’s Greatest Goal Achiever’. This is a man who has achieved 109 of his 127 life goals (you should look at them, this is not a man who needs to organise his filing cabinet…). Interestingly, his 126th goal was to marry and have children – he now has five. My question is, how on earth does he get time for them, in between scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, retracing the steps of Marco Polo and Alexander the Great, and exploring the Amazon river?

And going back to coaching for a moment, Caroline Adams-Miller, the well-known US life coach, author and Pennsylvania MAPP graduate, specialises in goal-setting theory and happiness in her coaching practice, based on the research evidence that identifying and achieving ones goals can increase your well-being (e.g. Locke 2005). Miller has also set up a very successful website where people can make a public statement about their goals, called

But Life Lists don’t attract support from every quarter; there are some who think that making a list of what you want to achieve in life actually detracts from what life is all about, i.e. living. I don’t often listen to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on the Today programme, but this one by Rhidian Brook about Life Lists caught my attention, particularly Brook’s claim that “They provide us with a kind of short cut to meaningful achievement and self-fulfilment”. I’m not sure that’s the case at all. Surely it depends to a large extent what your goals are (materialistic? altruistic?), whether they are realistic goals or just wild dreams, and how relentlessly you pursue them. Many Life Lists I’ve looked at contain a mix of goals which cover all Seligman’s pillars of well-being (creating pleasure, engagement, meaning and good relationships).

And anyway, who is it who said that ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans’?

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