Goals: setting them, working towards them, achieving them – they’re part of being human or so Brian Griffith and Catherine Graham say. In this article, they explore the Adlerian interpretation of goals as embodying the meaning of human life saying ‘goals reflect core values, reinforce an image of the ideal self, compensate for inferiority feelings, guard against pain, provide meaning in the present, and promote hope for the future.’(Griffith & Graham, 2004).
I was searching for some of the theoretical background to goal setting and came across this paper, which although is really a philosophical exploration of some of the models that occupational therapists drew on early in the development of the profession, also contains some references to more empirical and modern work.
A wee while ago I blogged about the ‘myth of occupational therapy’ in which I quoted a paper by Kelly & McFarlane (2007) as saying that the ‘grand myth’ of occupational therapy being that ‘occupation is essential for health’ and ‘purposeful activity’ may be used to reduce dysfunction and improve individual performance. Kelly and McFarlane state ‘Truth in occupational therapy [ie the place of activity – in my words ‘doing’] is not, therefore, based on scientific facts, but on tenaciously held beliefs.’
I wasn’t entirely surprised by this statement – but I’m happy to say that goals and goal-directed behaviour, which was an early premise of occupational therapy – is not only a philosophical belief, but also has some evidential support. Whew!
The origins of goal-directed behaviour
Griffith & Graham’s paper describes the developmental tasks of the infant as setting the scene for future goal-directed behaviour. Citing Adler, Bowlby, Busch-Rossnagel, and Maslow, they suggest that infants generate specific behaviours to elicit responses in those around them – generating ‘purposeful behaviours [to] demonstrate that human beings are naturally motivated to meet core needs.’ (Griffith & Graham, 2004). The initial pursuit of goals to meet basic needs, they argue, leads to ongoing use of goals as part of a way to meet ‘the need for meaning and purpose, without which we experience boredom and stagnation’.
Griffith & Graham go one step further in quoting Gollwitzer & Bargh (1996) saying ‘Core human needs with their associated fears become the conscious and unconscious motivation that leads to goal-directed action.’
Adler’s premise was that humans strive for achievement to overcome the underlying sense of helplessness or inferiority that originates in childhood. The core beliefs we develop as children have been identified as a key part of the way we view the world as adults, which in turn, influences what we choose to do – and the results of our choices also shape our lives and beliefs.
Adler identified ‘life tasks’ of work, love and community as ways to meet physical, psychological, relational and existential needs. The style, or unique way in which individuals go about meeting these needs are formed from the cognitive framework that develops in the context of early life experiences, and within the context of the social structure or ‘community’ in which the person lives. Adler’s view was that connections in the social context helps the individual to achieve life goals more effectively than if they only operate in ‘self interest’. Poor connection with others contributes to a poor view of the self as a person, and vice versa (Adler, 1964). As a result, Adlerian therapists promote the idea of personal goals that contribute to community ‘social interest’ in balance with the needs of self. By achieving good ‘social interest’, the underlying feelings of inferiority are reduced.
Well, great stuff, but where’s the connection with other world views and where’s the evidence that this relates to goals being good for people?
Thankfully there are researchers such as Brunstein (1993), Oishi, Deiner, Suh & Lucas (1999) who are able to demonstrate that achieving personal goals do directly contribute to subjective well-being – although as I’ve pointed out before, high achievers are less satisfied with the status quo and therefore strive to set very high goals in order to change it (Locke & Latham, 2002). But at the same time, they feel better in themselves.
Models of motivation
There are many researchers and theorists who have identified how motivation is influenced – and the end point of motivation is the enactment of goals. I’ve discussed Bandura several times before, with his social cognitive model of learning, from which people have developed a model of career development (eg Lent, Brown & Hackett (1994), Lent & Brown (1996, 2002), Lent (2004)). From this large body of research, we can see that innate skills and resources, external opportunities and experiences, and contextual factors all contribute to a systems view of how people choose and develop goals over time.
The areas in which goals are developed are suggested by Griffith and Graham as arising from an innate need to survive – by pursuing ‘conditions that ensure physical safety and security and protect against threats’. They identify four main areas for goals, based on a ‘biopsychosocial-spiritual’ model.
- Physical wellbeing
- Personal competence
- Relational closeness
They suggest that, in reference to physical health, when goals are ‘out of balance, pursuits in the other three goal dimensions may lead to neglect of this area’.
Strategies for achieving goals
Well, as you have probably found for yourself, while we as humans might be directed by underlying motivations to achieve goals, we may not be aware of the goals we are striving for. Many of our goals are based on values – and values that we probably developed early in life. As a result, many of them are assumptions that ‘this is the way the world is’ – maybe never having been thought through. Just see what happens when two people start to live together to find out some of the assumptions we take for granted! Some of them conflict with each other, while not being able to achieve them can influence our thoughts and emotions.
‘Strategies are designed to attain goals within the four domains (see above) while managing or coping with the inevitable stress of life and avoiding those situations that are perceived as threatening or painful’ state Griffith and Graham (2004). They draw on work from positive psycholgy and emotional intelligence to identify empirical support for affect regulation, interpersonal strategies and problem-solving and task management strategies.
Affect regulation refers to the ability to manage both negative and positive emotions as appropriate within the context of the individual’s developmental stage and community or social setting. (it’s OK to have a tantrum when you’re 3, but not quite so OK when you’re in your 20’s – except when you’re a singing diva, and it’s just before a performance?!).
Interpersonal strategies are those ways we negotiate to achieve personal goals within the context of other people’s equally compelling personal goals. it involves learning skills to convey a message effectively, and to listen effectively.
Problem-solving and task management strategies are those very dear to an occupational therapists’ heart: they involve the ‘ongoing monitoring of the person and the environment relative to one’s goals, which leads to the planning and employment of actions designed to meet needs and make meaning’ (Baumeister & Vohs, 2003).
So, these three skill areas of affect regulation, interpersonal strategies and problem-solving with task management are employed to help people get what they want while not treading on other people’s toes. And funnily enough, it’s these three skill areas that are directly influenced within pain management programmes.
More about this tomorrow, when I start to look a little more deeply at some of the problems that occur for people when they experience chronic pain, which is a threat to their ability to achieve what is important in life.
Brian Griffith, Catherine Graham (2004). Meeting needs and making meaning: the pursuit of goals Journal of Individual Psychology, 60 (1), 25-41
Baumeister, R., Vohs, K. (2003). Self-regulation and the executive function of the self. In M.R. Leary & J.P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity. (pp. 197-217). New York:Guilford Press.
Brunstein, J. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1061-1070.
Gollwitzer, P., & Bargh, J. (Eds.). (1996). The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. New York: Guilford.
Kelly, G., McFarlane, H. (2007). Culture or cult? The mythological nature of occupational therapy. Occupational Therapy International 14 (4), pp188-202.
Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior Vol 45(1) Aug 1994, 79-122.
Lent, R. W., & Brown, S. D. (1996). Social cognitive approach to career development: An overview. The Career Development Quarterly Vol 44(4) Jun 1996, 310-321.
Lent, R. W., & Brown, S. D. (2002). Social cognitive career theory and adult career development. Niles, Spencer G (Ed). (2002). Adult career development: Concepts, issues and practices (3rd ed.).
Lent, R. W. (2005). A Social Cognitive View of Career Development and Counseling. Brown, Steven D (Ed); Lent, Robert W (Ed). (2005). Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work.
Locke, E.A., Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey.. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.
Oishi, S., Diener, E., Suh, E., & Lucas., R. (1999). Value as a moderator in subjective well-being. Journal of Personality, 67, 157-184.