Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Remembering The End Goal

Ladder into the skyIt never ceases to amaze me how easily we forget what we are after.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone is after a measured degree of happiness. Whether we name it as such or have a different signifier for it, I think our end goal is the same: to obtain a high level of satisfaction with ourselves, our lives, our circumstances and products… our everything.

Now, you may recall that in recent writings, I touched on the dangers of polarization in the context of that nasty word, “Everything”, and its partner, “Nothing”.¬† Suffice it to say, it might be more practical to think about our degree of happiness in different terms – being happy doesn’t have to mean that you are happy with everything, in the polarized sense of the word.

Nevertheless, we all want to be happy. But today I want to talk about what happens when we forget that this is our goal.

I think most of us start out on the right path, but we come into a state of near-sightedness as a result of the sheer complexity of what it is to be a human being. When we were in school, for example, we quickly associated happiness with what we wanted to do with our lives, and more specifically, what diplomas or careers we wanted to pursue.

Already at this early stage, we began to exchange our goal of happiness for other, more tangible goals which would in turn lead us to happiness. I probably don’t have to tell you that the list extends infinitely down, from getting a bag of Doritos to learning how to meditate. All of our desires stem from our original desire to be satisfied.

Identifying tangible goals is not a bad thing. If we all sat around and philosophized all day, I don’t think we would be any closer to achieving our goal.

But the point I want to stress is that we often forget the end goal when we set our sights on intermediate goals – we can get lost.

Sometimes we lose focus on the end goal

Sometimes we lose focus on the end goal

One of my tangible goals is to quit smoking cigarettes. As you may know, this is a difficult task – not unreachable by any means, but difficult. Like many worthwhile goals, it takes a lot of time and effort. I find that my focus sharpens on it the more time goes by.

There are a couple of potential problems here.

For one, the more I struggle, the more smoking turns into a barrier to my happiness. The more this happens, the more I become convinced that I will become happier once I remove the barrier. This of course, is not how happiness works1 (future post reference here), as many psychologists will tell you from experience.

For two, the more I focus on the goal of quitting smoking, the more other goals seem to blur. This is like trying to upload a file to a website that has reached its size-limit – you need to delete files to make room for the new one, just like you push away other goals in order to bring one closer.

I can’t be certain, but the more we learn about the brain, the more this seems like a very unfitting¬† representation of what happens in it. Science used to think that there was one neuron per memory in the brain, but we now know that memories are not localized like files on a server, and neither are ideas. Instead, memories and ideas are larger, and are more likened to spider webs that attach to a large number of vastly different structures. Perhaps the tendency to lose focus on the end goal when concentrating on the near ones is a learned one, and perhaps we have the physiological ability to change it.

So, what are the benefits to keeping our focus on the final goal? Well, we might not become so unhappy when our intermediate goals aren’t so easily achievable. After all, it doesn’t make much sense for the rungs of the “happiness ladder” (forgive the metaphor) to, in actuality, add to our dissatisfaction.

If you had such a ladder, you would be wise to replace or fix a faulty rung, so you could get to the top. But you would not do well to use all of your time to make the perfect rung – because there are multiple rungs. This all boils down to one motto:

Don’t go halfway up the ladder and stop, remember the top.


  1. The way we usually go about it is to find out what is getting in the way of happiness, and to get rid of it. []

Chris Gerber is 32 and lives in Vancouver, Canada.

After graduating from a B.Sc (Physics major) program in 2007, he spent seventy days in Southeast Asia with the goal of discovery, on both personal and cultural levels.

Since his return, he has resisted automatic entry into the work-force, spending his time instead wondering how best to serve the world.