New Research Confirms the Cheesiest Cliché About Success

Turns out life truly is about the journey, not the destination

A male mountain runner is jumping up and punching the air.

YYou‘ve seen this chestnut a million times: “Life is about the journey, not the destination.” It’s on inspirational posters in your gym and the hallway of your kid’s school. It’s in an Instagram caption for a photo of an influencer on a beach somewhere. It’s stitched on a pillow at your grandmother’s house.

It’s also — don’t roll your eyes — actually useful advice. That’s the conclusion of a recent study out of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, in which marketing researchers surveyed more than 1,600 people about the metaphors they used to think about their goals.

Compared to people who used the destination framing or no metaphor at all, the study authors found those who used the journey framing were significantly more likely to continue with the good habits they’d developed — even after meeting their initial goal.

Reaching a goal isn’t just about success; it’s also about process.

“If I think about this as a journey from where I started to where I am today, with all the ups and downs, it can help me see how much I have actually changed,” says Szu-Chi Huang, one of the co-authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition. And that hindsight can be a powerful motivator, she says: If your goal is to get in shape, for example, “[The journey mindset] drives me to continue eating healthy and working out, even after I reach the destination.”

The research backs what we intuitively know: Reaching a goal isn’t just about success — it’s also about process.

Thinking about all the ups and inevitable downs of a journey can also help you bounce back after a setback. That’s a vital part of creating healthy habits, according to the decision-science researcher Alan Barnard, who studies habit formation and decision-making (he was uninvolved with the Stanford study). If you’re trying to make a change, one of the things that can get in your way is the stress you feel when you stumble.

If you see yourself as being on a set path toward a specific end point, without any deviations, those stumbles can feel like much bigger deals — and, therefore, much more likely to discourage you. “Your stress response can work against you if you’re hurt much more by a bad day,” Barnard says, “even if you have equal amounts of good and bad days over time.”

But thinking of yourself as being on a journey means assuming that the road may be winding, and that’s okay. “We’re human beings,” Huang says. “We care about important goals, but we will fail along the way. It’s not rational to think we’ll just keep on making progress every single day.”

And the great thing about removing the psychological end point of a destination is that the progress can continue. “The journey mindset helps me think about this as something that’s a process, from the past, to where I am today, and going to the future,” Huang says. “It never stops.”

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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