Attaining Satisfaction

To be happy in the long run, set ambitious rather than modest goals.
July 30, 2012 | Research Brief
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The Idea

To be happy in the long run, set ambitious rather than modest goals.

The Research

People often set low goals that are easier to reach with the belief that doing so will guarantee happiness. But does this approach actually protect the goal-setter and lead to greater satisfaction?

The answer may lie partly in how people measure their performance — whether against their initial goal or the pinnacle of what is possible in a given situation. For example, is a student who aims for a B on a test satisfied when they earn that grade, or are they disappointed because they could have earned an A?

To find out whether those who set low goals are as satisfied as those who set higher goals, Professor Gita Johar and former doctoral candidate Cecile Cho, now assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, looked at goal setting in the context of financial decision making and puzzle solving. They predicted that individuals who felt a need to avoid future disappointment would set low goals to avoid the disappointment that could come from not meeting higher goals. Johar and Cho asked study participants to set “desired percent return on investment” goals that they thought would satisfy them, first subtly priming some of the participants to set low performance goals while leaving others to set goals without any such influence. Participants then took part in a simulation scenario where they had to invest the money based on stock information provided by the researchers.

Afterward, Johar and Cho provided feedback, telling all participants their investments met their performance goals. Participants were then asked how satisfied they were with their performance. Ironically, those who set low goals up front to avoid future disappointment were less satisfied than those who set high goals. The researchers ensured that the results could not be explained by differences in the actual level of performance. Even though people expect to compare their performance to their initially set goals, they end up comparing it to what could have been and are therefore doomed to disappointment when they set low goals.

Practical Applications

Marketing Managers

You can use this research to better understand how to increase consumer and employee satisfaction. In general, encouraging individuals to set ambitious but attainable goals may lead to more satisfaction and greater happiness than encouraging low goals that are easier to reach. Consumer satisfaction often suffers because consumers tend to forget their initial expectation for a product and evaluate the product relative to foregone options (what could have been). Reminding consumers of their initial — and often more modest — expectation would ensure that satisfaction is not negatively affected when using a product.

Business Professionals

The takeaway for individuals: don’t sell yourself short. Aim high if you want to be happy, especially in the long run. Johar says that individuals are often poor judges of predicting what will make them happy, so rather than trying to forecast whether attaining a certain goal will lead to satisfaction, people will be happier if they set relatively high goals and strive for them — and up to a point, whether they reach them or not.

Gita Johar is the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business in the Marketing Division, senior vice dean, and a senior scholar at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business at Columbia Business School.



Gita Johar

Gita V. Johar (PhD NYU 1993; MBA Indian Institute of Management Calcutta 1985) has been on the faculty of Columbia Business School since 1992 and is currently the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business. She served as the school’s Senior Vice Dean from 2011 to 2014, as the inaugural Vice Dean for...

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Cecile K. Cho, Gita Johar

"Attaining Satisfaction"


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