Setting Meaningful Goals

What do we all want from life?

This is a big question that has been the focus of attention for philosophers and psychologists from Aristotle’s concept of Eudaimonia all the way through to Martin Seligman’s model of positive psychology.

Understanding what is really important to us as human beings and to you as an individual, can help you set goals that are genuinely meaningful, fulfilling and can enhance your wellbeing. 

The Harvard academic Tal Ben-Shahar suggests one way of looking at this. He suggests making a list of three things – 

  1. What do you find meaningful? If you have read the page on “Finding meaning in your subject – even if you didn’t choose it,” you may already have done this. You may want to begin by thinking about what is important to you in general. It may help to ask – what do I care about? What makes me excited, passionate, determined or angry? What would I like to change in the world? What would I choose to spend my time on?
  2. What do you find pleasurable? In other words, what do you enjoy? What do you find fun, interesting, inspiring or exciting? When you think about times you have been enjoying yourself, what were you doing?
  3. What are your strengths? What do you think you are good at? What do other people say you are good at? When do you feel competent and capable? [1]

Take your time and try to make 3 long lists – not just the first few that come up in your head. 

Once you’ve done that you will probably notice that some things occur on more than one list – be aware that this might not be clear at first if you’ve used different words or phrases to describe the same thing.

If you build a Venn diagram that contains of all of this, you will see that some things appear in the middle – i.e. they appear on all three lists. Whatever that is, you can use it to build your future and your career. If you build a career on something that is meaningful to you, pleasurable and uses your strengths, you will find work fulfilling, good for your wellbeing and you will probably find that you do well at it.

This can also open up more possibilities for your future. Rather than trying to find a narrow path to one particular job, you can think about the range of careers and roles within which you can find meaning, pleasure and use your strengths. 

In turn, you can then use this to plan out and work on your research, learning and building skills and experiences to help you be even more ready to take on opportunities that will work for you. 

We discuss this more in the section on Planning For The World After.

Video Resources

Thumbnail image for video

Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar (Harvard University) Discusses Setting Meaningful Goals and Finding Meaning



Ben-Shahar, T. (2002). The question of happiness : on finding meaning, pleasure, and the ultimate currency. Retrieved from Shahar meaningful goals&f=false