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Health Hack #10 - How Realistic Goal Setting Positively Affects The Brain

New Year's Resolutions

With the New Year’s holiday comes the time that many of us set resolutions. As noted last week – gym memberships surge in the New Year, as do health food sales. It’s become embedded in our culture as an opportunity to press reset and set our sights towards seeking to accomplish things that we’ve had on the backs of our minds for some time, or maybe even some smaller things that arose more spontaneously. It’s not abnormal that we identify the need for positive change in the fall or early winter and bookmark the start of the New Year as the time to begin realizing that pursuit. None of this is surprising to the reader. But what may be, is how the act of setting goals that are actually attainable can positively affect our neurology.

Neurotransmitters 101

The way we feel – happy, depressed, excited, or even scared – is driven by the creation (or suppression) of what are called neurotransmitters in our brain. Serotonin - which many are at least loosely familiar with – is often referred to as the happy hormone. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression. Quality levels of serotonin are associated with, you guessed it - happiness.

Dopamine is another neurotransmitter associated with positivity, but dopamine is geared more towards a sense of accomplishment. In hiking to the top of a mountain, one may feel a sense of contentment in the act of the exercise, knowing that progress is being made. This would equate to a rise in serotonin. The exaltation one would then feel at the summit is a surge in dopamine. The two often work in tandem – the activity building the serotonin, the completion of task elevating dopamine, culminating in feel-good bliss.

The Endowment Effect

A term coined in the field of psychology, the “Endowment Effect” was born of a series of experiments that began at Cornell University. The gist is fairly simple, but also very interesting. When we’re in possession of something (a person such as a spouse, or an object, or even an idea), it becomes an integral part of our very identity and we’re not apt to part with it easily. Give a group of randomized individuals an object that they don’t have any particular attraction to. Later, introduce a new item that they’re known to enjoy – maybe some chocolate. Grant them the opportunity to trade for what we already know they like, and surprisingly the odds of them doing so are very low. We have a tendency to covet things in our possession and attach a value to them that is indistinguishable from our very identity. To part with this could be seen as a loss, which would result in a hit to our serotonin and dopamine levels.

Interestingly, ample research has shown that we need not have actual possession of something for it to be considered our own, as far as our brains are concerned. This is best exemplified by the hysterical child in a toy store who is forced to leave without being given the toy they feasted their eyes on upon entering.

Where Setting Goals Fits In...So Long As They Are Attainable

Using the analogy of the mountain climber, the pursuit itself translates to an elevated state of happiness. And now understanding the Endowment Effect, we can infer that while a goal of ours may not have yet been achieved, it’s mere existence can in most cases translate to our exercising a degree of ownership towards that end accomplishment. And recall the screaming child. When you can’t get what you want, things can turn miserable fast! This is where the realism of the goal sets in.

Set a goal for something you believe to be attainable.

The act of doing this creates a relationship with that idea and triggers your brain to be positively influenced. And by all means – set more than one goal.

Be sure not to overload yourself with too many goals.

Due to the ownership we claim over mere ideas, it’s best not to set ourselves up for disappointment if we can avoid it. Stacking too many goals can lead to a perceived “failure” if some fall by the wayside, much in the same way that failure to accomplish a goal will.

Track your progress.

You’ll recall that dopamine activates off of accomplishment. Rather than holding out for that mountain top summit, set points along the path that chip away towards that end desire and relish in the feat of hitting these smaller marks along the way.

Stay focused.

To fail is to knock down those serotonin and dopamine levels and potentially find yourself less content than you were prior to beginning your pursuit. Keep your eyes on the road and hold yourself accountable.