[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
More and more psychological studies are discovering what many of us are slowly discovering for ourselves and A Course in Miracles is trying to teach us: Happiness comes not from achieving worldly goals, but from becoming better, more loving human beings. A new study, conducted by Edward Deci and colleagues at the University of Rochester, provides further evidence for this conclusion. It suggests that achieving goals like wealth, fame, and physical attractiveness not only doesn’t make us happy, but it actually makes us feel worse. True happiness, in Deci’s words, comes instead from “growing as an individual, having loving relationships, and contributing to your community.”
The study, which will be published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined 147 college graduates. The graduates’ progress toward various goals was tracked twice, with a survey administered a year after graduation and another survey two years after graduation. The goals were divided into two categories: “extrinsic” goals such as being “a wealthy person” and achieving “the look I’m after,” and “intrinsic” goals such as helping “others improve their lives” and having “deep, enduring relationships.” The surveys enabled the researchers to determine both how much progress the graduates had made toward these various goals, and (through examining various factors like life satisfaction, self-esteem, anxiety, and the experience of positive and negative emotions), how much happiness achieving these goals brought.
What they found was striking. A long-standing theory in psychology holds that if you both value a goal and actually accomplish it, happiness will follow—regardless of what particular goal you’re striving for. But this study found that the graduates’ happiness was tied not to simply achieving a goal, but to the content of the goal. Those who valued intrinsic goals became happier as they achieved those goals. They felt better about themselves, enjoyed deeper relationships with others, experienced more positive emotions, and had fewer stress-related physical problems. But those who valued extrinsic goals felt worse even when they achieved their goals. They experienced more negative emotions such as shame and anger, felt more anxious, and suffered physical symptoms of stress such as headaches and loss of energy.
The authors of the study concluded that striving for “materialistic and image-related milestones” simply doesn’t meet our deepest human needs. This striving leads to competition, which leads in turn to feelings of inadequacy and envy. Moreover, whatever pleasures come from reaching such goals are fleeting. The goals that really bring happiness, in the words of co-author Christopher Niemiec, are intrinsic goals, goals that are “more closely related to the self, to what’s inside the self, rather than to what’s outside the self.” As Deci concludes:
Even though our culture puts a strong emphasis on attaining wealth and fame, pursuing these goals does not contribute to having a satisfying life. The things that make your life happy are growing as an individual, having loving relationships, and contributing to your community.
A Course in Miracles would certainly agree. It speaks of how we seek for “idols,” worldly things that we use as substitutes for God—things like “more beauty, more intelligence, more wealth, or even more affliction and more pain” (T-29.VIII.8:8). And just as this study suggests, it tells us that idols “must fail to satisfy” (T-30.III.1:8). In the Course’s view, they must fail to satisfy because in truth we are boundless Sons of God who have been blessed by our Father with the gift of everything: limitless love, peace, joy, perfection— in a word, total completion. How could limitless beings who are totally complete in every way ever be satisfied with paltry and ephemeral accomplishments like a house in the Hamptons, an Academy Award, or washboard abs?
The prayer in Workbook Lesson 258 asks a poignant question, and then reminds us of the only goal that could ever really satisfy us:
Shall we continue to allow God’s grace to shine in unawareness, while the toys and trinkets of the world are sought instead? God is our only goal, our only Love. We have no aim but to remember Him. (W-pII.258.1:3-5)
God Himself, the ultimate intrinsic goal, is the only goal that could really bring us happiness. And the good news is that we already have God, “our only goal, our only Love”; we simply need to remember Him. Yet how do we do that while we live in this crazy world where everyone is seeking outside himself for “the toys and trinkets of the world”? In the Course’s view, we find God through seeking goals strongly reminiscent of Deci’s arresting phrase: “growing as an individual, having loving relationships, and contributing to your community.”
We grow as individuals through following the path of the Course: studying its teaching, practicing its way of transformation, and extending the Love of God to others. We have loving relationships through engaging in holy encounters and holy relationships with our fellow human beings. And we contribute to our community—to the entire Sonship—by accepting our special function in God’s plan for salvation, the particular role the Holy Spirit has given us in the universal plan to lead everyone back to remembrance of the God we never really left.
I don’t think we can be reminded of this enough. Even those of us who have been on the spiritual path for a while can be so easily tempted by those toys and trinkets. But as the title of the article I’ve drawn from puts it, “achieving fame, wealth, and beauty are psychological dead ends.” They seem to promise so much, but in the end they’re just like the products in those infomercials: They never deliver the happiness they promise.
What goals really bring us happiness? Let’s remember that, as the old saying goes, “The best things in life are free.” The only goals that bring lasting satisfaction are those that bring us happiness from within. The Course tells us this, psychologists are discovering this more and more every day, and surely our own life experience has taught us this if we will only look at it with real honesty. Only by finding the love within ourselves, giving that love to our brothers, and thus taking our part in God’s plan for salvation will we walk unimpeded down the royal road to the Goal of goals: the everlasting Love of God.
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