Has anyone ever asked you to imagine that you’re at the end of your life, reflecting on everything that’s happened to you? When you ask yourself if you achieved everything that you wanted, are you thinking about your goals or your dreams? Is there even a difference?
Dreams and goals can overlap. However, dreams are usually associated with the vision, while goals are typically driven by action.
In this article, we’ll elaborate on the differences, give you examples of both and give you some tips for reaching your goals and realizing your dreams.
Difference Between Dreams and Goals: What Defines a Dream and a Goal?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a dream has several definitions. However, the one that’s most appropriate for this article is: “A strongly desired goal or purpose,” or “something that fully satisfies a wish.”
The definition of a goal is: “the end toward which effort is directed.”
So dreams and goals are both objectives that you can reach. However, a dream is more closely tied to the desire, whereas a goal is more tightly linked to the effort that you put in to achieve the aim.
According to Rich Habits, a dream is a future outcome. A goal is a future action. Because goals should be tied to desired outcomes, your goals can be set up to help you achieve your dreams.
But can a lofty goal be the same as a dream? You might say that a dream becomes a goal when action is directed in an effort to achieve it.
A dream exists in your mind. A goal comes to fruition when you associate deadlines and action steps with it. Therefore, a goal can transform your dreams into reality.
Dreams and Goals Fuel Us
Have you ever felt like you had no motivation? We’ve all had days where we wake up and don’t really feel like doing work. We might decide to stay home instead, only to find that we’re not feeling passionate about doing anything else, either.
We might turn on the TV and zone out for the day. We might stay in bed. We may even walk around aimlessly. By the time we go to bed that night, we feel like we wasted a day.
If you’re typically busy and don’t experience this lack of motivation often, you might appreciate the ability to relax. However, most people don’t feel good when they don’t get anything accomplished.
How Your Brain Responds to Goal Setting
That’s because humans are hardwired to achieve. When you work toward your goals, your brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
It’s interesting to note that scientists once believed that dopamine was released after you accomplished a goal. They thought that it worked along the reward pathway, telling you to do that action again because it produced positive feelings.
But dopamine is not just associated with pleasure. It spikes in moments of high stress.
Let’s back up for a moment to understand the way that dopamine works.
Dopamine is a chemical signal that transmits information through your nervous system. Its effects depend on the areas of the brain through which it travels. The types of neurons that dopamine interacts with also influence the feelings that it produces.
When dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens, part of the brain that’s located in the mesolimbic pathway, it tells you that pleasure is coming. People who are addicted to drugs may experience a dopamine release in this area when they think of their drug of choice. It’s this spike in dopamine that ignites motivation.
Dopamine can also spike in the nucleus accumbens when people are triggered by an event that causes fear. In those cases, dopamine alerts you to pay attention. Essentially, it motivates you to avoid a situation that could cause you pain or distress.
So dopamine is a motivator. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that people who have a desire to work hard to achieve what they want have higher levels of dopamine in certain areas of the brain than people who are content to sit back and work less.
The study looked at 20-minute tasks. Scientists aren’t sure how this data applies to long-term behaviors. However, it indicates that people with higher dopamine levels may be more motivated than others.
But if your dopamine spikes when you foresee that something significant is about to happen, you may be able to take advantage of that by setting goals. Give yourself something important to work toward. Do this frequently, and you’ll be able to take advantage of a consistent flow of motivation.
Why You Need a Big Dream and Small Goals
You need to incorporate big dreams and smaller goals into your life to create a sense of balance. If you had lots of small goals that didn’t add up to a big dream, would you be satisfied? That would be the equivalent of being busy at work but still feeling bored.
On the other hand, big dreams might feel grand, but what good are they if they’re unachievable? You might dream of owning an island in the Caribbean, but your fantasy isn’t very likely to pan out.
Your dreams are the endpoints for your goals. They serve as markers toward which you can align all of your goals.
But if you break your dreams down into smaller chunks, you won’t be able to take advantage of the dopamine hits that occur every time you achieve an objective.
Your goals are the stepping stones for achieving your dreams. They’re the tools that can help you live your purpose instead of living by the seat of your pants. They also help you stay motivated as you’re working toward something huge.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have big goals. You should segment all of your big ideas into smaller pieces to make them achievable.
You can’t build a house without creating a blueprint, laying down the foundation and framing it out first. Likewise, you won’t really fulfill your purpose in life unless you have a target destination, some guidelines for getting there and ideas of actions that you can take along the way.
People With Goals Are Happier
According to Psychology Today, people with goals are happier than those without them. There are many reasons for this, including the following:
- Setting and achieving goals activates the release of dopamine, which makes you feel good.
- Goals increase productivity.
- Goals improve self-esteem.
Let’s take two people who just deposited $1 million into their bank accounts. One of them had set a goal to make her first million in profits by opening her first business. The other had just won the lottery.
Initially, both are probably elated to have the extra money. However, people who win the lottery do not see big changes in their long-term happiness. Lottery money doesn’t improve the winners’ mental health, either.
Their economic satisfaction may be high. They may feel more financial freedom and be able to afford more conveniences. But receiving money unexpectedly doesn’t feel as good as setting a goal to earn it and accomplishing that mission.
In the long run, people who set ambitious goals tend to be happier than those who don’t, according to research. That’s because grander goals tend to have more value.
If you set a moderate goal, you’re going to get moderate results. On the other hand, if you set an impressive goal, you’re going to get impressive results. Those magnificent results are likely to make you more satisfied.
Extrinsic and intrinsic goals may also affect your happiness. In a 2003 study, researchers found that students who set intrinsic goals during college, such as personal development or improving their relationships, had a higher sense of well-being than those who set extrinsic goals, such as earning a certain amount of money.
Dreams Improve Your Well-Being
The study of intrinsic and extrinsic goals has implications for your dreams. If your goals align with your dreams, they’re more likely to be intrinsically based. Therefore, you have a better chance of being satisfied with your achievements.
Even the types of dreams that you have while you’re sleeping contribute to your happiness. The dreams that come to you in sleep:
- Enhance your creativity
- Help you solve problems
- Help you get past traumatic events
- Maintain your mental health
- Allow you to solidify new memories
- Let you practice skills that you use during the day
When you dream, your frontal lobe, the hub of your executive functioning, including decision-making, is inactivated. You also lose the ability to form and store new memories. The brain has to go further into your memory storage system to access some information that may be deeply lodged in your psyche.
Research has found that you’re more likely to think outside the box when you’ve recently come out of a dream state. Scientists have also discovered that people who dream about an exam the day before the test tend to get better scores even if the dream was rife with challenges.
In a 2016 Psychology Today article, Gregg Levoy explains that dreams don’t just come true; they are true. Because your nighttime dreams access parts of your brain that lie below your daytime consciousness, they bring up information that you already know even if you don’t think that you know it. Not only that, but dreams also deliver information about how you feel about something that’s going on in your life.
If the dreams that come during sleep are generated by your intuition, what can be said about the dreams that you envision for your life while you’re awake? Most likely, those are drawn from a healthy dose of intuition too. Your subconscious mind drives a high percentage of your thinking.
Dreaming, doing vision work and daydreaming can all help you achieve desires that you may not have known that you had. For that reason, dreaming is often a precursor to goal setting.
Dreams Happen Without Action
Your dreams exist inside of your head. You can think about them any time. They don’t require any action on your part. In some cases, as when you’re sleeping, you may not even feel like you play a conscious role in creating your dreams. However, dreams do usually stem from your deepest desires.
But unless your goal is to get more sleep, you can’t accomplish your goals while you’re snoozing. Goals require you to do something.
Because we live in an action-oriented society, you might think that goals are more valuable than dreams. However, dreams are important to give you a target for directing your goals.
Would you rather live your life according to your most intense desires or follow some mundane goals that you thought were expected of you? Without dreams, your goals will likely be of the ordinary variety. When you base your goals on your dreams, you can strive for more fulfilling and meaningful achievements.
Do You Have to Achieve Your Dreams and Goals to Be Happy?
If you’re always striving to reach unattainable ends, you’re probably going to end up disappointed. That’s especially true if your goals are based on uncontrollable outcomes.
For example, someone who sets a goal to lose 20 pounds by December may have a lot more trouble accomplishing that objective than someone who aims to eat an extra helping of vegetables with every meal. That’s because you can’t guarantee that you’ll shed the weight.
Even if you do everything that you’re supposed to do to drop pounds, such as cut your calories and exercise more, you can’t control certain aspects that affect the goal, such as your metabolism. But you can be in charge of putting more vegetables in your mouth.
Craig Cincotta, a guest writer for Entrepreneur, says that the journey is the reward. He says that when you dream, you have a vision of what you want the outcome to be. In other words, you can visualize the end of the journey. The results are sweet, according to your imagination.
But if you put all of your attention on the outcome, you’ll lose out on celebrating the small, sometimes unexpected, wins that happen along the way. And when you neglect to reward yourself for the small victories, you also lose out on the dopamine spike that can help you harness your motivation.
Therefore, if you tell yourself that you’ll only be satisfied by achieving your big dreams and goals, you may not end up happy. Things can get worse if your journey takes you down an entirely different path.
But if you can set yourself up to enjoy the journey, you’ll likely be fulfilled even if you don’t end up where you thought you were headed.
How to Increase the Chances of Realizing Your Dreams
There are a few ways to engineer your life to deliver the greatest doses of happiness when you need them most:
- Make the journey part of your purpose
- Break big dreams into minuscule goals that you can achieve every day
Focus on the Journey
Let’s start by talking about the first bullet point. So many people are plagued by the idea that their lives won’t have meaning if they don’t know what their purpose is.
What if your sole purpose in life is merely to live, experiencing as many sensations as possible? That would shift your mindset when it comes to the way that you do everything.
Many of us shy away from emotions that we perceive as negative. We try to keep a smile on our face, turn away from discomfort and avoid situations that might make us cry. But if your purpose were to live life to the fullest, then experiencing the full spectrum of emotions would satisfy you.
Therefore, part of actualizing your dreams is setting them up in a way that places value on the process. Imagine that your dream is to teach children with learning challenges survival skills. Your big vision is to open up a center that caters to these children and take them out on week-long treks through the wilderness.
But you can’t fund that big dream right away. You have to keep your day job as you work on the skills that can help you get closer to that vision.
Along the way, you fall into financial hardship unexpectedly. You end up working at the office full time until you retire.
On the weekends, however, you get together with groups of children from the community. You take them and their parents on overnight camping trips, and you get to share your expertise and passions with them.
At the end of your life, you might be slightly disappointed that you weren’t able to collect enough money to open the retreat center that you had once imagined. But if you look at your journey, you can appreciate the things that you have done.
You opened children’s eyes to nature. You helped people learn survival skills. You followed your passion to the best of your ability, considering the circumstances.
If you value the journey, you might find that you excelled at realizing your dream. You made the most of a less-than-ideal situation and grew in ways that you may never have imagined.
Break Large Dreams Into Smaller Goals
From a dopamine perspective, the more goals you achieve, the more of the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter gets released. You stay motivated, and you feel a consistent sense of momentum.
From a numbers perspective, you’ll accomplish more goals if you make them more achievable. That doesn’t mean that you have to set boring goals that don’t push you outside of your comfort zone.
Fantasize about your dreams. Make them as big as you want. Then, work backward, segmenting them into smaller pieces until you’re left with baby steps that you can accomplish easily.
To envision this scenario, imagine that you’re hiking and come across a wide but shallow stream. Your main goal is to cross it. Your secondary goal is to stay dry.
You could look for large boulders or tree trunks to place in the stream so that you can use them to cross over. However, those are difficult to find. There aren’t a lot of big rocks or downed trees around, and moving them would be incredibly taxing because they would be so heavy.
There are lots of smaller stones that are about the same size as your foot, though. You will need many of them to cross the stream, but moving them doesn’t take a lot of work. In fact, you can collect several of them in your arms at once to get across the stream.
You end up gathering enough stones to create a bridge. You don’t even have to jump from rock to rock because you’ve placed them close enough together to make the transition easier.
Although you can take huge leaps to accomplish your goals, you don’t have to. You increase your chances of attaining your dreams without falling into the river by moving gradually and setting yourself up for success.
Steps for Achieving Your Dreams and Goals
If you have big dreams, there is no reason to write them off as fantasies. They can be achieved even if you can’t envision the steps for realizing them.
There are many techniques for actualizing your dreams. Here are some steps that you can take to make your wishes come true:
1. Get Clear
No matter how lofty your dreams are, they must be clear. Take the time to imagine the possibility of realizing your dreams.
You can do this by meditating, journaling or brainstorming. Share your dreams with a friend who can help you elucidate them.
As you picture yourself living your dream, ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I doing?
- Who am I with?
- Where am I?
- How old am I?
- What am I wearing?
- What’s possible for me if I realize this dream?
- What else is possible?
- What’s possible for me if I don’t actualize this dream?
If your dream isn’t clear, don’t put pressure on yourself. Just start experimenting.
Try different things. Meet new people. Travel to new places. Putting yourself in novel scenarios may help you shed light on where you want to end up.
2. Don’t Limit Yourself
When you’re dreaming, don’t get practical right away. Worrying about whether your dreams are achievable will automatically limit the possibilities.
They’re called dreams because they let you fantasize. As you work through the potential opportunities, you may learn more about yourself. You may grow just by going through the process of dreaming.
The people that tell you that your dreams won’t come true have usually been disappointed in their own journeys. They probably set an outcome as a prize and were discouraged because they didn’t have the tools to accomplish it.
We’ll talk more about those tools as we go through this list of steps. They’re necessary for accomplishing what you want, but you can leave them out of this step.
3. Trust Your Gut
Your intuition is far more powerful than you may think. However, most of us are taught to follow the evidence instead of our hearts.
That’s a problematic way to live your life. Even though scientists do extensive research on countless topics every year, they haven’t come up with data to explain every phenomenon. That’s especially true when it comes to supporting the way that you live.
You are with yourself more than anyone else. You have more access to your inner wisdom than your therapist, partner or best friend does. You can trust the feelings that you have, that deep knowing that occurs to tell you that you’re on the right or wrong path.
Get in touch with your intuition, and trust that it’s working for you. Many people don’t understand how to tap into their awareness in this way.
One way to tune into yourself is to keep an intuition journal. Every time you have a gut feeling, write it down. Describe what you thought and how you felt in your body. Later, make a note of what came from it.
Perhaps it was unfounded. Maybe you predicted the future. Either way, you’ll reflect on it. Soon, you’ll be able to differentiate between irrational fear and real danger, and speculative excitement and the actual sensation that things are working out for you.
4. Be Open
The universe doesn’t always deliver your dreams exactly the way that you envisioned them. Perhaps you wanted to be an actor but became famous as a motivational speaker instead. Maybe you wanted to earn a 6-figure income and ended up with a 7-figure retirement account.
If you aren’t open to the opportunities that arise, you may prevent yourself from going down the path that leads you to your dream. You can also limit yourself by focusing too hard on certain outcomes that thwart your chances of increasing your potential.
5. Learn From Your Mistakes
Every mistake is an opportunity for reflection. You can get a lot of feedback from taking risks and having them end up differently than you expected.
If failures paralyze you, you will not move forward. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of life. The higher you set your goals, the more likely you may be to encounter setbacks along the way.
Allow yourself to flow in and out of your experiences. Take what you need, leave what you don’t.
By keeping your big vision in mind and setting up goals to help you along your journey, you’ll be able to navigate the hurdles and fulfill your purpose.