How far are you willing to stray from wellbeing to reach a goal?

In medicine, the term surrogate end points or surrogate goals is often used to develop and evaluate treatments. For example, cholesterol levels are commonly used as surrogate goals when we want to reduce cardiovascular mortality. Surrogate end points can be a useful short cut in research and treatment, but they can also be misleading.

Sometimes, for example in the case of ventricular arrhythmia, the use of surrogate goals led to drug treatments that actually increased the risk of death instead of lowering it (Fleming & DeMets, 1996, Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 125, nr. 7, pp. 605-613).

In everyday life, we all use surrogate goals, sometimes not even realizing it. We want to be successful, for example, and in pursuit of success, we look to certain achievements such as good grades, promotions, financial wealth etc. that we consider to be milestones for success.

If we ask people what they want most of all, many say ”happiness”. We want to live a good life and be well. But this elusive, subjective end goal is difficult to live by. So we use surrogate goals such as wealth, success, popularity, strength or attractiveness instead. And that’s where it gets tricky, because we risk confusing the means with the end.

Working hard for something makes us overestimate the importance of it. We believe that we must reach success, celebrity etc. in order to ever be happy. We even risk choosing the surrogate over the happiness it was supposed to bring, so that we consider getting a promotion a more serious and real pursuit than trying to increase the joy in our life.

An example of this can be found in the graph pictured. It is part of a report titled ”The Children We Mean to Raise” from Harvard on their national survey of the values of American youth. This showed that a majority of young Americans value achievement over concern for others and over happiness. This illustrates how our modern culture has made achievement a virtue so important that it eclipses all other goals.

From the Harvard research project “The Children We Mean To Raise.”

Is that really what we want for our children – or for ourselves? To prioritize achievement, even at the cost of happiness? Do we believe it will be worth it? That at the end of achievements, wealth, and beauty lies happiness?

The disappointing fact is that these goals do not necessarily bring happiness with them. We can have wonderful careers, accrue great wealth, be celebrated by multitudes, and still not be happy. In fact, all our hard work can lead us further away from wellbeing, not closer to it.

We rush through our lives, pushing ourselves to perform regardless of how we feel. We accept both mental and physical pain, because that is how we think we can get to the good life waiting just beyond. We even pride ourselves with having endured. Some see stress and no time for sleep as emblems of success, not just poor decision-making. Do we want to perpetuate this perception of what a human life is about?

If we don’t want this for our children, we ourselves have to change. We can tell our kids that it is more important to be happy and spend time with people we love than to be successful, but if we don’t walk the talk, they’ll be walking right in our stressed, anxious and depressed footprints.

With my clients, I have the motto ”live the life you wish your children to have”. This is not an easy guideline, but it sometimes makes it easier not to be swept away in the rat race of modern life.

It allows us to examine our goals to distinguish surrogates from real goals, means from ends. To not accept goals just because everybody else is running towards them, but instead to be willing to go against the current to pursue happiness, even at the expense of achievement. If not for our own wellbeing, then for the next generation’s. Let’s change that graph. 

Kamilla Lange is a clinical psychologist, a mindfulness instructor, and an external lecturer for US college students. She is also the author of a book on mindful eating called Vind Kampen mod Vægten. She is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.