04/23/2014 05:11 EDT | Updated 06/23/2014 05:59 EDT

You'll Feel Better If You Set Modest Goals

A recent study, jointly conducted by researchers from Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Houston, got my attention. Its objective was to test how achieving or failing to achieve certain goals impacts people's happiness level.

What the scientists found was hardly surprising: Meeting expectations results in a greater degree of satisfaction than missing them. However, more importantly, they also discovered that participants in the study who aimed for more modest and realistic goals not only accomplished them in great numbers but also felt more gratified, even if their achievements were comparatively lower.

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the participants were divided into two groups and then asked to perform so-called "prosocial," (one might say, altruistic) tasks that made other people either smile or altogether happy -- the latter obviously being a much greater challenge. Those who managed to reach their goal in either group must have been quite pleased with themselves, but one can safely assume that there were many more successful smile-makers than happiness-creators.

Still, for me as a dietitian and health counselor, this research is far from trivial. One of the main reasons why, for instance, weight loss efforts fail to such a high degree is that dieters routinely start out with unrealistic expectations. They look at what's being presented to them by commercial weight loss programs or popular television shows and anticipate similarly spectacular outcomes in their own lives. Then when the dreamed-up results don't kick in pronto, they give up, feel depressed, lose their self-esteem, etc.

"It's not uncommon for dieters to set lofty weight loss goals for themselves," says Kathleen M. Zelman, a registered dietitian at WebMD. "Some reach back umpteen years to their wedding day or college weights. Others fantasize about looking like a supermodel, even though their naturally large frames may make this an impossible goal."

Instead of trying to fit in clothing sizes of many years ago, people should set mini-goals they can attain within a relatively short period of time. When they reach a certain mark, it will not only be a rewarding experience but can also serve as a motivator to continue on the right track.

Also, Zelman advises, people should not lose sight of the more important aspects of weight management, which is to improve their health.

"Even modest weight loss can improve your blood pressure and your cholesterol, blood sugar, and triglyceride levels. Losing as little as 10 pounds can put the zip back in your step and make you feel terrific about yourself."

Unlike most other aspirations we may have in life, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight range, and ultimately good health in general, is a never-ending task. It takes strong motivation, enduring patience, ongoing commitment, prudent strategy, and a realistic perspective for what's possible. Once those are in place, the potential rewards are greater than all others -- because nothing is as satisfying as being well.


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