Meeting needs and making meaning: The pursuit of goals

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.

Goal Domains

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.

  1. Physical wellbeing
  2. Personal competence
  3. Relational closeness
  4. Self-transcendence

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.


  1. True!

    All the factors that you have mentioned are based upon ones self confidence which goes weaker by such chronical issues in life, person starts hating itself in many cases.

    It is very important to understand the improtance of natural medicine and techniques.


    1. Hi there
      Just because a treatment is ‘natural’ doesn’t make it better for a person than conventional treatments. I’m very committed to evidence-based therapies, so am persuaded by good empirical evidence rather than simply belief or anecdotes. Chronic problems can make people feel very helpless – but so much more helpless if they have their hopes raised by a treatment that doesn’t have any scientific basis.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  2. As I understand you then, Occupational Therapy aims at helping patients who need it, do whatever is of value or meaning to them, and I should hope, decidedly not to behaviorally “correct” individuals in such a manner that they will mindlessly conform and comply, see the light, and acknowledge meaning or value in circumstances or activities wherein said individuals are frustrated because they decidedly howsoever simply do not perceive meaning or value.

    And I also take it that the management of chronic physical pain, is simply your own specialization (and topic of this blog, of course), not definitional to Occupational Therapy. Although, after all, the French word for work is: ‘travail,’ literally: suffering. And quite frankly, that describes school no less than it does employment. To this day, I also continue to contend with additional obstacles of extreme covert relational hostility, harassment, bullying and defamation, that has even in the past even made me vulnerable and targeted for exploitation also in business dealings and continually obstructs me from effective outreach, leaving me increasingly isolated, socially.

    Indeed, just as Adler asserts, I do indeed strive for achievement to overcome the underlying sense of helplessness originating since childhood. But that means first and foremost escape from oppression, not function therein at all. But I find little or no assistance or guidance in any direction that I actually value and find meaningful, specifically: interactive function whatsoever outside of and beyond the oppressive structured environments and flimflam that I so abhor, including vocation more entrepreneurially and likewise any options at all in effective and uplifting social connection as a free agent in the world at large.

    So, where is my Entrepreneurial Occupational Therapy and my subversive social skills training? As ever, while there is, at least ostensibly, every kind of support imaginable in doing as we are told towards purposes not our own, in anything really important (in school being such as social success, not to mention good study habits), we are still all simply left to our own devices or: “osmosis”. Bah, humbug!

    1. I hope occupational therapists respect their client’s/patient’s values in as much as setting goals that are directly relevant to them, rather than the therapist! And I do hope that goal-setting isn’t about herding people along a pre-determined path to conformity! Otherwise I’d never have made it! Values are personal – and while family/community etc influence values, in the end it has to be a personal decision as to which values become ‘owned’ and so to direct your life.And it is YOUR choice as to whether you follow your personal values or don’t. I’m guessing that there are times when it is expedient to conform because by conforming it ensures short-term values are met such as ‘keeping the peace’ or ‘avoiding trouble’ or even ‘preserving energy’. I don’t think anyone gets training to do this!

      1. Much to my exasperation at the time, I have indeed been offered Vocational Rehabilitation serving no end whatsoever save that of “providing structure,” supplying however humdrum and arbitrary routine of deliberately contrived and consistent typical authoritarian punishment and reward systems, all avowing no other purpose than of sustaining predictable negative and positive reinforcement in the environment, a patronizing agenda of sheer pointless heteronymy. To make a long story short, after I declined, much to my alarm, they actually tried to trick me into joining a support group, similarly ill-conceived! By contrast, at least the Sherlock Holmes’ sad and misanthropic Diogenes Club demanded no demeaning group validation exercises as are the revolting focus of bogus support groups. By that time, I had also refused the prerequisite condition of partaking in their social skills training, that I should never be critical. In my own research since then, I have come to learn, not surprisingly, that a standing criticism of social skills training is in a pronounced lack of adaptability to new situations. I surmise that the social skill in question consists of docile compliance, being, after all, the single clear therapeutic goal of Behaviorism. Indeed, everything on offer turned out to be Behavior Modification as applied to whatever nominally different context.

        I have been diagnosed with howsoever mild or borderline Asperger’s, and had I simply been apprised from the beginning, that the only accepted treatments for Asperger’s are either medication or Behavior Modification, I could have told them all to go to Hell on day one if not sooner. The Reductionist Postmodernism of Behaviorism, after all, Nihilistically dismisses anything so subjective as meaning, value or purpose, as therefore entirely unscientific. According to an MBTI test I took online, I am an ENFP, “the inspirer,” an idea person and a people person, therefore very much oriented to the communication of meaning and values, and one might think, therefore, the last patient that should ever be brought even anywhere even remotely near any semblance of Behaviorism in any guise whatsoever. Incidentally, as it occurs to me, a feature of ENFP that might also conceivably correspond with Asperger’s, is weak introverted sensing, poor sensory memory for comparison to whatever ongoing present circumstances.

        In my previous post, I have expressed my own hopeful surmise that indeed Occupational Therapy, unlike such Vocational Rehabilitation as I have already declined, simply is not more of the same loathsome coercive and endlessly manipulative Behavior Modification under yet another confusing alias and elaborate diversionary intake procedures. Thence, I only have striven to outline my own particular needs, for which I have no clue where to turn, in your concise Occupational Therapy terms of doing.

        My ongoing Psychodynamic Therapy is all fine and good, but Psychodynamics by definition addresses only a certain set of needs, and not those whereof we speak. Psychodynamics, incidentally, is accepted as helpful only in processing the suffering caused, but not the condition itself, of Asperger’s. Funny thing: Aspergers is a syndrome without an etiology. Except that there is actually a long standing etiology in, of all places, Psychodynamics. But for whatever reason, there is no Psychodynamic treatment of Asperger’s. And since there are no Psychodynamic Asperger’s specialists, there is simply no one responsible to ask why.

        How I yearn to deal with responsible people! As things stand, I am clearly left with more spleen to vent than clear direction.

      2. My personal view of Apserger’s syndrome is that it’s a different way of viewing the world, and as for anyone with different abilities, the disablement aspect arises from social and environmental shortcomings – in the right environment and with adequate acceptance of the different way of viewing the world, people with all sorts of different abilities are able to function well.
        Venting spleen is all very well, but where does it get you? Does it change anything, or are you left with the same situation, AND the emotions of frustration and irritation? Vocational rehabilitation can mean different things to different people at different times. ‘Work’ can be construed as those activities that shape or structure a person’s day, that have to be done, are purposeful, and contribute to others in some way. Deciding what fulfils this for you is something only you can define – but at the same time, you live in a community which holds certain values and rewards certain behaviours, to a certain degree you (and I) are obliged to follow along with the common beliefs or we are likely to be ostracised or not included in some way. It’s up to us to decide whether this fits for us or not!

      3. Now I find myself sorry that I characterized myself as venting spleen. I only meant to amplify upon my own sense of frustration. Otherwise, aside from any benefit of catharsis, it’s really neither here nor there.

        Patronizing Behaviorism for Asperger’s merely assumes that failure to conform is remediable by simply dumbing it all down. In my first post, you may recall, I explained what I seek in the alternative, in order to meet my own underserved needs and values. And that is what I wanted to consult you about, please.

      4. Come to think of it and speaking of favorable environment, I once found the webpage of a therapist presenting the perfectly enchanting parameters of an ideal environment for the gifted. But when I emailed to ask him precisely how he would provide such a benefit to a patient, even offline and onsite in his office let alone remotely and electronically, he simply refused to explain. Getting substantive information prior to consent, more often than not, has been like pulling teeth!

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