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Redefining your goals can boost long-term health

Apr 24th, 2012
Staff writer / LifeApps Media

Life has a way of throwing us curve balls that interrupt plans, derail goals and crush hopes. But people who can let go of past goals and redefine new, more realistic, goals may end up as healthier people, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal Psycho-Oncology, found that breast cancer survivors who were able to let go of old goals and set new ones showed an improved well-being overall. Once the self-imposed pressure of unrealistic goals was removed, individuals’ quality of life improved as did their level of physical activity.

The findings were drawn from data on 176 breast cancer survivors between the ages of 28 and 79, who were, on average, approximately 11 months past their diagnosis and about three months past the conclusion of cancer treatments. Self-reports of the individual’s capacity to adjust their goals were measured at the start of the study. At the same time, researchers measured self-reports of physical activity, sedentary activity, emotional well-being and daily physical symptoms such as nausea and pain. Three months later, the researchers conducted another round of self-reports.

The study found that goal re-engagement—being able to set new goals—was associated with more physical activity, increased emotional well-being and fewer physical symptoms. Breast cancer survivors who were able to let go of old goals and to find new ones were less sedentary, which contributed to an improved well-being. These findings support earlier research showing that goal adjustment can influence better well-being and health.

“Our research reveals that the capacity to adjust goals plays a pivotal role in facilitating not only high physical activity but also low sedentary activity and thereby contributing to overall improved well-being,” said a co-author of the study, Carsten Wrosch of Concordia University’s Department of Psychology and Centre for Research in Human Development. "Given that it is possible to influence adjustment to specific goals; it may be beneficial to integrate goal adjustment processes into clinical practice.”

“By engaging in new goals a person can reduce the distress that arises from the desire to attain the unattainable, while continuing to derive a sense of purpose in life by finding other pursuits of value,” she added. “Abandoning old goals allows someone to invest sufficient time and energy in effectively addressing their new realities.”

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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Photo credit: National Cancer Institute