The words we use matter. They have deep connotations that affect us in profound ways.
Ellen Langer is a Harvard psychologist and author who has studied for years how the specific words we use to define ourselves and our actions also define our physiology. In one of her studies, chambermaids were told that the “work” they were doing was actually also “exercise.” After this reframing, they lost weight.
In another study, people were asked to evaluate jokes. Some were told it was work, and some were told it was play. The people who were told it was work enjoyed the jokes less and wanted more compensation to continue reading the jokes.
The word goal has some pretty specific connotations
—sports, effort, physicality, trying, striving. It’s a thing you achieve. You’re working for it. Sometimes you are alone, sometimes you are on a team, but it’s this singular point in the future that holds your focus. A trophy. A win.
The word goal does not connote happiness.
Multitudes of studies have shown that true happiness comes from a constellation of experiences: flow, compassion and service, human connection, and time in nature. (I would add to that list dogs).Very often our goals, by their singular nature of achievement, do not really take true happiness into consideration. You may think that increase in your income will make you happy, but studies also show this isn’t true. Unless you can connect that financial goal to a deeper goal, you’re joy from that extra $500,000 will be short-lived. Hard to believe, I know, but such is the nature of happiness.
Happiness is something you integrate into your now.
You can strive towards human connection, or flow, but these experiences are more holistic. You don’t achieve them, you value them and practice them. If you’re American, you probably need to remind yourself about the true nature of happiness at least monthly, because our culture has not integrated this into its consciousness yet. We are supremely driven, work-focused, self-sacrificing zombies more often than not. Myself included.
For these reasons and more, I’ve replaced goal with harbor.
Instead of working towards my goals, I’m sailing into my harbor. I’ve never sailed a ship, and you probably haven’t either (I’ve never scored a goal either, but that’s a different story). But we all have access to the idea of what it means to sail a ship. There is the captain, studying the stars for navigation. The sailors, hoisting the sails, tying the ropes in intricate knots, their hands holding the kinesthetic memory. There is the cook, and the plain work of cleaning the decks. There is shanty-singing and the creak and sway of the ship as it skims across the vast ocean.
And eventually, the ship sails into the harbor.
Arriving in the harbor is a certainty, as much as anything can be certain. And the force that gets you there is the wind, which will vary in strength, but which is also a constant force across the seas.
There is a force we can tap into that will sail us into our harbors.
All we must do is mind the sails, study the stars, pay attention to all the little details of ship sailing. And we must stay the course. Remember this. Remind yourself of it often. The toxic belief that success is the product of work, work, and more work can block the wind from ever caressing your cheek. Actually, the wind will caress your cheek—with whispers of insight, ideas, and delight—but you will be too tired to notice.
To sail, you are going to need maps.
Multiple maps: nautical charts and star charts, the course to the harbor, the currents of wind and ocean. It’s more relevant to the complexity of human desire than scoring a goal. Are you studying your maps daily? Are you connecting with the cosmic guides of the stars? Are you heeding the winds and the tides?
You sail with a community.
There are people helping you all along the way. No matter how introverted you are, you do not sail alone. There are teachers, people that inspire you, friends and family that cheer you on in a thousand different ways. Your crew matters. Appreciate them (it will make you happy).
Your harbor is also a community.
Ships sail into harbors loaded with goods, and sail away stocked with provisions, if not more goods. Harbor places our desires within the context of our greater community, the gifts we have to give, and the ones we will receive. Individualism is huge in our culture, but I find it so refreshing and exciting to think of my desires as being complete when they find community.
And never forget: the pleasure is in the journey as much as it is in the arrival. And the arrival is only temporary. The sea calls to you. Your ship yearns for the wind in her sails.
I write in my journal every day.
It’s my star chart and my compass. I have been journaling since childhood. It’s the best way I know to stay the course, while at the same cultivating awareness of my deeper self, the part of me that knows in a way that my everyday mind does not. And I end each writing session with my list of harbors.
These are the places I’m sailing towards.
Meanwhile, my cargo is full of books and paintings, as well as all the pinecones and lichen I collected on the way. On deck my friends gather and we sing Roll the Old Chariot while we hoist the sails. The wind is brisk. Dolphins leap alongside.
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