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Goals, Pandemics and Purpose

As a therapist and for myself, I usually advocate setting healthy attainable goals as a way

of staying focused and hopefully attaining a sense of purpose and satisfaction in life. However,

in some ways, it seems that the Covid 19 situation with lock downs, sometimes uncertain

employment, and an unsure future makes that idea seem somewhat challenging. It is hard to

think about going out and conquering the business world, or finishing that degree, when it is not

safe to go out of the house and be around groups of people!

I think Aristotle had some interesting and useful views to offer about this subject.

Aristotle talked about telos, which is a Greek word meaning goal, or purpose. He wrote about

two different kinds of goals, telic, and atelic. Telic goals are goals that are measurable, such as

finishing college or buying a new car. They usually have a beginning and an end. However,

Aristotle pointed out that telic goals are paradoxical if we are pursuing goals with happiness in

mind. If we do not achieve the goal, then we are unhappy. However, if we do achieve the goal,

we might experience a brief period of satisfaction, happiness, or even euphoria. However, soon

after, we will inevitably experience a kind of emotional…thud! Perhaps a feeling of emptiness

returns, and we are left asking “is that it?” Some of us then will start looking for a new goal to

move us forward. Telic goals have been described as making friends for the purpose of saying


Aristotle also talked about atelic goals. Atelic goals are more process oriented. For

example, I could want to improve my character. It is not likely that I will wake up one day and

proudly proclaim that my character is improved and is now good enough! Perhaps I want to be a

better musician, it is a process oriented goal, and ongoing. An example of using these goals

would be as follows: my doctor informed me that I should lose 20 pounds (!). The telic goal is to

lose 20 pounds, but I know myself, and when I lose 20 pounds and one ounce, it is time for me to

call the Pizza Man to help me celebrate my success! The atelic version of this would simply be to

eat more healthy and think of my health as an ongoing goal.

I don’t think Aristotle was saying that one kind of goal is better than the other. For sure,

graduating from college or buying a new car is great. I think what he was saying is that we need

both types of goals in our life to be balanced, so that the atelic goals can offset the ups and

downs of the telic goals. I am finding that my time spent in lock down is an opportunity to

practice atelic goals, and this is quite satisfying. Having said this, I DO hope the pandemic, the

lock down, and the turmoil of this year become a distant memory…soon! Stay safe.


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