Approach or Avoidance? - Happier Human

Approach or Avoidance?

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What is better when setting goals, approach or avoidance? Is it better to focus on avoiding things you hate and want to avoid or focus on the positive things you want from life?

This post takes a deep look at approach vs avoidance to find out if it is more motivating to set goals that help you change those things you hate or focus on your dreams, desires and positive outcomes from life.

Successful goal setting is one of the hallmarks of a happy life. If you’re interested to learn other indicators of happiness, I recommend the book Happier Human, which reveals the 53 habits that can be applied in your life to increase personal happiness.

Let’s get to it!

Approach vs Avoidance: Which style of Goal Setting is Better?

Working hard in order to avoid looking like a fool is more motivating than working hard in order to do well. It is just human nature.

That’s why, no surprise, many goals are formulated as a means to avoid things you don’t want to do.

I want to… lose weight to avoid being made fun of. I want to… make more money to avoid being in debt. I want to… stop procrastinating to avoid missing deadlines.

Avoidance goals work – the prospect of loss is more motivating than the prospect of gain. But they’re also stressful and sometimes less effective than goals formulated as a means to approach.

“I will try to get a good grade”or“I will try to avoid getting a bad grade”?
“I will try to look good”or“I will try to avoid looking fat”?
“I will try to get a good performance review”or“I will try to avoid getting negative feedback”?

Each goal type is a simple reflection of the other.

One focuses on the positive, the other on the negative.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional focus on the negative if it actually helps you achieve something positive.

For most of high-school, it was avoidance that drove me to work hard – I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. So I studied, a lot. Much more than I would have if I had tried focusing on the positive.

So, which should you use – approach or avoidance? Here are two guidelines to help you decide which type of goal-setting is better: approach or avoidance.

Approach Goals Are Pleasurable; Avoidance Goals Are Stressful

With three hours left to go before the deadline, you can bet I’m motivated.

But motivated isn’t the same thing as excited. Someone being bullied can be highly motivated to learn how to fight. But I’m willing to bet that they also feel miserable. They’re anxious to learn as much as possible. Anxiety is motivating, but it’s also unpleasant.

“I want to lose weight in order to look sexy.” If you have an approach goal and think about it, it will leave you excited and feeling good.

“I want to lose weight in order to stop looking fat and ugly.” If you have an avoidance goal and think about it, it will leave you anxious and feeling bad.

Sometimes anxiety is worth the cost. After all, I feel happy after completing my goals, whether they were motivated by excitement or anxiety. But most people are over-stressed. Adding even more stress may not be worth it.

Avoidance Goals Are A Double-Edged Sword

Anxiety isn’t just motivating – it’s also risky. Sometimes, avoidance goals are too emotionally charged – producing so much negative emotion that rather than shocking you into action, they shock you comatose.

Psychologists almost universally recommend approach over avoidance goals. That’s the reason.

In one series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal were significantly more likely to procrastinate than those encouraged to write an approach goal.1 In another series of studies, those who were encouraged to write an avoidance goal performed worse – getting lower grades, completing fewer tasks, and running shorter distances.5

However, keep in mind that those in the avoidance group did worse, but only as an average. Most did worse, but some did better. If you’re able to handle stress and don’t flinch away from anxiety, avoidance goals will work for you.

The workplace is full of avoidance goals, “I will avoid upsetting my boss”. “I will avoid getting noticed”. “I will avoid being late”. “I will avoid missing the deadline”.

These types of goals are stressful. For many people, those goals could become more effective and less stressful by being rewritten as approach goals, “I will please my boss”. “I will stand out and shine”. “I will be on time”. “I will finish ahead of the deadline.”

Avoidance Goals Help Smokers Quit

In one long-term study of smokers wanting to quit cold-turkey, those in the avoidance group were able to keep away longer than those in the approach group.3 One study does not make science, but it’s suggestive that in some areas of life, fear of death and disease can be useful.

On the other hand, not all of those in the avoidance group did better. For some, the fear was so overwhelming that it created anxiety. Guess how they relieved that anxiety? By smoking.

Approach or Avoidance?

So, which goal type do you think better suits your goal?

Approach – focusing on the positive, or avoidance – focusing on the negative?

Rewrite your subgoal in terms of the goal type you think is a better fit!

Want to learn more about goals? Check out some of the science behind goal-setting theory. Want to be happier? Check out my massive post on 54 Ways to Be Happy.

Also, if you want to incorporate habits that bring long-lasting happiness, check out Happier Human that contains 53 science-backed habits for a happier and more successful you.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Which is better? Approach or avoidance?

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1. The Relationship of Procrastination With a Mastery Goal Versus an Avoidance Goal
2. The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation
3. Avoidance Goals Can Be Beneficial: A Look at Smoking Cessation

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