Could having goals contribute to depression?

We’re told that having goals is important. At school we teach kids the importance of them whilst there wouldn’t be a boardroom in the country that hasn’t hosted a goal-setting workshop.

But what if your goals were making you depressed? Read on…

Last week I ran 10km. It took me just over an hour. Whilst this time isn’t going to be setting any records I was pleased for one reason alone.

It was the furthest I’d run in over 3 years.

My last ‘double-digit’ run was in the 2012 City2Surf from Sydney CBD to Bondi Beach and the three occasions I have completed the 14km City2Surf account for my three longest runs.

In May I plan to run the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon, before taking on the full Sydney Marathon in September. You may have read about this on my MarathonMindset blog…

From the outset my goals have been process and progress orientated. By that I mean I haven’t been focused so much on the times I run, rather the improvements I make in between runs.

I look at all manner of things:

  • How do my legs feel at the 5km mark?
  • How has my breathing improved?
  • Am I more relaxed in my upper body?
  • Has my pace (time per km) decreased on similar runs?
  • Am I able to handle hills any better?
  • How many days does it take before I think, “I’m ready for another run?”

Clearly some of my interpretations may be incorrect in the moment, and constantly zeroing in on growth or progress means you sometimes miss the bigger picture.

This is where having milestones is important.

Running 10km was a milestone for me. Again I wasn’t interested in how quickly I ran it, just that I could.

My next milestone is 15km and I aim to do that by the end of April at the very latest.

Some people have said to me that in order to run the half marathon, you only need to get to 15km in your training. I’m not willing to bank on that, I’d like to know I have the kilometres in the legs before then.

I think it’s important to be really clear about what your goals, milestones and crucially your motivating factors are when taking on any challenge that is significantly out of your comfort zone – as running is for me.

Being unclear in any of these can lead to a dip in motivation.

In fact in her book Self Theories, Professor Carol Dweck (of Mindset fame) talks about how goals can contribute to depression.

Whilst her work in the 70’s and 80’s primarily focused on school students’ approaches to learning, you can probably see now how her work resonates across all fields.

In Self Theories she defines two types of goals.

Performance Goals

“This goal is about winning positive judgements of your competence and avoiding negative ones. In other words when students pursue performance goals they are concerned with their level of intelligence.”

Learning Goals

“This goal is about increasing your competence. It reflects a desire to learn new skills, master new tasks or understand new things.”

Dweck says, “It’s important to recognise that both types of goals are entirely normal and pretty much universal. And both can fuel achievement. [In] fact in the best of all possible worlds, students could achieve both goals at the same time.

[But] although I have argued that both types of goals are natural, we have found that an overemphasis on performance goals is a danger signal.”

In my experience I believe it’s possible that an over reliance on Performance Goals can lead individuals to:

  1. Opt for easy Performance Goals so as to guarantee their success, but in doing this they limit their potential for growth;
  2. Attempt and fail to achieve Performance Goals and this then impacts on their self esteem.

Dweck goes on to describe how Benjamin Dykman of Washington State University has shown how peoples’ goals can contribute to self-esteem loss and depression when they encounter negative events.

Dykman (1998) extended on the premise of Performance and Learning Goals by describing them as validation-seeking goals, and growth-seeking goals respectively. He also extended this far beyond the classroom into everyday life including sports, work and family relationships.

He says:

“Validation-seeking individuals are those having a strong motivational need to establish or prove their basic self worth, competence, or likeability. Stemming from this need to prove their basic worth, competence or likeability, validation-seeking individuals show an accompanying tendency to appraise difficult or challenging situations as major tests or measures of their basic worth, competence or likeability. In other words, validation-seeking individuals see their basic worth, competence or likeability as being ‘on the line’ when faced with challenging or difficult situations.

On the other hand…

“Growth-seeking individuals are those who have a strong motivational need to improve or grow as people, develop their capacities and realise their potential. [Growth] seeking individuals are willing to confront challenge or adversity in order to grow, improve and reach their fullest potential. Stemming from these growth needs, growth-seeking individuals show and accompanying tendency to appraise difficult or stressful situations as opportunities for learning, growth and self improvement.”

Validation-seeking individuals who set themselves but fail to achieve Performance Goals are more likely to see that failure as a measure of the self, and over time this can impact on their overall level of wellbeing.

Whereas growth-seeking individuals are less likely to be depressed, to have been depressed in the recent past or to be generally prone to depression.

Next time you set yourself a goal, are mandated by a workshop guru to come up with one, or are tasked with inspiring your colleagues to set goals, try to ensure it’s a learning or growth-seeking goal.

It will most likely be better for you, and those around you.

3 thoughts on “Could having goals contribute to depression?

  1. rhonimcfarlane Reply

    Side note: I always roll my eyes at the word “potential”. Ed has been full of “students achieving their potential” for as long as I can remember. This has always bothered me. Who determines this “potential”, how does one persons perception of an individuals “potential” differ from another? Who are we to determine a ceiling on ones “potential” whether they have achieved it or not?

    • DanH Post authorReply

      Hi Rhoni… I hear you!

      I’ve said many times that I think it’s dangerous/untrue for a school to say things like “Every student reaches their potential” or the like that often crops up in marketing materials, because as you say who are we to determine another’s potential… and let’s be honest, lat age 18 when our students leave us – let’s hope that’s not as good as it’s gonna get!

      No, rather than measure – rather crudely, or claim to know what an individual’s potential is, we can talk about the behaviours that we would want to encourage in an individual so they can continue to grow to be their best possible self…

      Like “engagement” we have to be careful in our use of words like potential.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment… muchly appreciated 🙂

      Dan

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