Understand your motives in the pursuit of personal goals

Being aware of your underlying motives in pursuing personal goals is key to protecting your mental health and wellbeing, according to Western Australian researchers.


Human behaviour is structured to attain personal goals. Despite providing a person with a sense of meaning and purpose, some types of goals and styles of goal pursuit have been associated with depression and anxiety.

An Edith Cowan University (ECU) study, investigated the relationship between underlying goal motives, emotion regulation, and anxiety and depression.

Goal motives are overarching emotionally based tendencies that orient an individual towards desired, or away from feared, potential experiences.

The researchers examined two types of motives that underpin personal goal pursuit – ‘avoidance-oriented’ (to avoid threatening or feared outcomes), and ‘approach-oriented’ (to strive toward desirable and pleasant outcomes).

Those who pursued goals with underlying motives that were fear based (avoidance), were more likely to experience emotion regulation difficulties, which in turn increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, the researchers found.

Personal awareness of what drives us to achieve the things that matter is a critical step in protecting mental health, said ECU’s Professor of Psychology Joanne Dickson, School of Arts and Humanities.

“It’s also important to understand that an approach-oriented motive may underpin an avoidance goal, and vice versa,” she said.

“For example, an underlying avoidance motive, to avoid social rejection, may stimulate adoption of the approach goal behaviour, to appear sociable and talk to several people at a party.”

“Or, alternatively, an approach goal to do well in an exam may be driven by the motive to avoid feeling a failure or upsetting one’s parents.”

Use of a misaligned or inappropriate strategy can impede goal progress and give rise to emotional symptoms such as anxiety or depression, according to the researchers.

“Having awareness of underlying motives that drive personal goals, potentially gives people an opportunity to reflect and to create choices, such as adapting or reframing personal goals, motives or thinking, if necessary,” Professor Dickson said.

Reframing avoidance motives

While avoidance may be beneficial in the short term, for example, getting out of the way of imminent physical danger – such as a flood, engaging in avoidance more long-term was associated with increased anxiety, said co-researcher Bridget Robson, in the ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities.

“Avoidance motivation typically increases negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety when the threatening scenario seems imminent,” she said.

“Reframing avoidance motives may be a useful strategy in protecting against difficulties in emotional regulation and anxiety.

“For example, fear of failing an exam, might be reframed as striving towards passing.”

The study furthers an understanding of the nature of depression and anxiety from both a motivation and emotion regulation perspective, Professor Dickson said.

“Although we found avoidance motives increased emotion regulation difficulties which in turn exacerbated depression and anxiety, approach motives did not lead to emotion regulation difficulties or depression and anxiety, suggesting that approach motives that drive personal goal pursuit seem to play a protective role in maintaining mental wellbeing.”

The findings have implications for self-management and ongoing therapy developments, as well as mental health promotion programs.

The paper ‘Goal motives in depression and anxiety: the mediating role of emotion regulation difficulties’ was published in the journal Australian Psychologist.

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