Health & wellbeing

Happiness Habits: Strive for success

02 Sep 2022 | Written by By Miriam Akhtar MAPP

Photo of a blackboard with 'Success' written in bold letters across it in white chalk with 'go get it' written in smaller text beneath.

In the final Happiness Habits session on 6th September, we’ll be exploring the one remaining ingredient in the PERMA model of how to flourish: the A for Achievement. The idea of pursuing goals can bring up feelings of ambivalence for some people and memories of pressure to achieve targets at work. Leaving that thankfully in the past, it is true that people feel motivated to strive to achieve goals that are important to them. It gives us a feeling of triumph and satisfaction. 

There are two sides to the “A” in the PERMA model. Achievement is the act or process of achieving a goal through effort e.g. ‘I’ve achieved my goal’ or ‘That’s a real achievement’. And the other side of the coin is Accomplishment, which is more about your personal development, reaching a high standard after a process of training or development e.g. ‘she’s a very accomplished pianist’. It’s the difference between ‘I am a success’ which is linked more to approval from others and ‘I am succeeding in accomplishing something that is important to me.’

There is a strong connection between achieving goals and well-being. Not all goals are created equal though, so to maximise your chances of success, it helps to frame your intention as:

  • A goal you want to move towards (approach) rather than something you want to escape from (avoid).

For example, an approach goal would be wanting to move to the countryside because you want fresh air and peace. An avoidance goal would be wanting to move to the country to escape the crime, traffic and pollution of the city.

Avoidance goals are, by their nature, more stressful to deal with because you’ve constantly got your eye on the negatives, which drains energy and enjoyment. Whereas approach goals keep your attention on the potential presence of something positive rather than the absence of something negative.


  • Something that you are intrinsically motivated to do.

An intrinsic goal is something you want to accomplish for its own sake because it’s inherently interesting, important or enjoyable. So that might be getting fit because you want to have a stronger body and more energy.

An extrinsic goal, on the other hand, is usually motivated by gaining an external reward like money or status or to impress others. So that might be getting fit in order to attract a new partner. Extrinsic goals often reflect something that others approve of or want for us rather than our own deep desires. Focusing too much on extrinsic goals has a negative association with well-being.


  • A goal that will satisfy the three universal needs for well-being.

These needs include a sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Look for opportunities to exercise your autonomy in whatever you’re seeking to achieve, so that you are the master or mistress of your own destiny.

Choose a goal that will develop you or your skills so that you become more accomplished. And make your goal something that will bring you a sense of belonging, as the number one source of well-being is connection with others.


  • A chance to use your strengths.

Strengths are your positive characteristics like courage or kindness as well as your talents and abilities. These inner resources act as levers you can pull to help you achieve your goal. How might your strength in perseverance, for example, support you in getting through the Open University assessment? Or could you draw on your strength of zest to help you do the Couch to 5k?


The ultimate gift is that when you apply your strengths to your goal, not only are you more likely to succeed, but the door also opens to the deep and meaningful happiness. This is known as eudaimonic well-being, which is the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling your potential. 

Happiness and success are universal desires and there is a positive relationship between them. We all know that achieving something makes us feel happy, but the reverse is also true. People with high well-being tend to enjoy more success in life because they’re more engaged in what they’re doing and more likely to put the effort in to make themselves a success. 

Front cover of 9 Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Grant. It is red with a large white 9, forming the background to the title and author of the book.
A framework to help us achieve goals comes from psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson and her book Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. To be successful you need to:

  1. Get specific. Thousands of studies have shown that getting specific about the goal is one of the most critical, though often overlooked, steps in reaching any goal. For example, rather than wanting to get fitter, having a goal of walking 10,000 steps a day. 
  2. Seize the moment to act on your goals. What can help with this is to do ‘if-then planning’ and schedule time to work towards your goal. If it is 4pm, then I will go for a walk.
  3. Know exactly how far you have left to go. Identify a regular time to review the steps taken and map out the next steps.To-date thinking’ is about knowing what you’ve achieved so far, whereas ‘to-go thinking’ looks at how far you have to go. Confidence is built by knowing what you’ve already achieved, whereas motivation comes from to-go thinking. 
  4. Be a realistic optimist.  Keep your optimism realistic by thinking about the obstacles you are likely to encounter as you pursue your goal. For obstacles you’re concerned about, plan how you will respond to them and describe them in ’if… then…’ terms. ‘If I face this obstacle, then I will…’ 
  5. Focus on getting better rather than being good. When a project is difficult, recognise that making mistakes is part of how you learn. You need to be patient and compassionate with yourself as you face challenges. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t compare yourself to others, rather compare yourself to how you’ve been in the past. Notice the progress made. 
  6. Have grit. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards long-term goals. It is a crucial ingredient in success. Prof Angela Duckworth, who is the author of Grit, describes it as“a special blend of passion and persistence.”  If you ever feel defeated and wonder about giving up, ask yourself ‘will I always find this difficult, or is this something I could get better at?’ And remind yourself of what is the deeper meaning beneath what you’re doing to tap into the passion and strengthen your motivation. 
  7. Build your willpower muscle. Willpower is something that many of us lack, but the good news is that willpower acts like a muscle and, with practice, it gets stronger. Start with a small challenge such as making your bed, sitting up straight, taking the stairs rather than the lift and build from there before attempting bigger challenges like giving up smoking or radically changing your diet. 
  8. Don’t tempt fate. Don’t take on two challenging goals at once such as moving house and dieting. Avoid temptation e.g. parties where people are smoking and drinking. And have an ‘if-then’ plan to deal with temptation e.g. if I go to a party, then I’ll take some soft drinks with me. 
  9. Focus on what you will do, not what you won’t do. Reframe ‘stopping goals’ e.g. ‘I will stop eating sweets’ by deciding instead ‘I will eat more fruit’. Then make an ‘if….then’ plan.‘If I feel the urge to eat sweets, then I will go to the freezer and whip up some of the frozen cherries into a sorbet instead.’

Want to strive for success? Uncover the path to happiness at the next Positive Psychology talk led by Miriam on Tuesday 6th September at 11am.

Want to continue reading?

This piece is part of our exclusive daily blog for members. We post new interviews, features and stories every single day, so sign up to continue reading - today and every day!

Sign up and start your free trial today

Already a member? Log in to read the full post