Sometimes, as a coach, I’ve asked someone what their goal is and they say something like “I want to be happy.” And these are usually people who don’t seem to be that happy at the moment, so they don’t believe they’ve got there yet. And no wonder; they think they are setting happiness as a goal, but actually it’s not a goal, it’s an emotional state. And if happiness is important to the person, and they are motivated towards it, then happiness is also a value – but it’s not a goal.

Let’s look at the distinction between states and goals.

Usually we talk about emotional states fairly vaguely – not surprising, as there are different ways of feeling happy, and feelings are not always easy to express in words. A goal, on the other hand, needs to be stated precisely. You need to specify exactly what you want – or how will you know when you have got it?

States are timeless. You can have any state you want, right now – at least in principle. If you want to be happy, you can just think about a good time you’ve had, or a good friend, or some quality that you value and you know that you have, and you instantly feel happier. Try it now – remember a time when you were really happy, and step back into that time and let yourself feel that happiness. And you could do that with any state, and we often do without thinking consciously about it – although why would we want to do it except with positive states?

In principle, you can have any state you want instantly, because states are a response to our internal representations, which we are in charge of.

Goals are different. For a goal to happen, something has to change in the real world, and that takes time.

A goal will also need a number of steps to get from here to the goal. How many steps will depend on the goal, and also on how your mind chunks the information about how to get there. The smaller the chunk size your mind likes to use, the more steps – but each step will be smaller. In fact a good way to work out the path to your goal is to find the final step and work backwards.

With a state, there are no steps involved – you just go into it.

So make sure you are clear on the difference between a state and a goal, and make sure it’s a well-formed goal that you’re setting.

The difference between states and goals

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