Kasia Gustaw Rothenberg MD, PhD is a Geriatric Psychiatrist and Neuropsychiatrist, Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. We asked her what goes on in your brain when you set goals, and she offered advice on setting goals appropriate for you and how to follow through on those resolutions.

Read the Q&A with Dr. Rothenberg below.

WAM: How do setting and achieving goals contribute to overall mental health, and what impact do they have on the brain’s cognitive functions?
Dr. Rothenberg: Meaningful goals give individuals a sense of purpose and contribute to developing a positive self-identity. Having a clear purpose in life has been associated with better mental health outcomes, including reduced risk of depression and anxiety. Setting and achieving goals positively impact mental health by influencing neurotransmitter systems, promoting neuroplasticity, reducing stress, enhancing executive functions, fostering positive emotions, and providing a sense of purpose. The intricate interplay between goal-setting and the brain’s cognitive functions highlights the importance of goal-oriented activities in maintaining and promoting overall mental well-being.

WAM: In terms of brain health, what role do goals and resolutions play in promoting neuroplasticity and fostering adaptive changes within the brain?
Dr. Rothenberg: Setting goals activates the brain’s reward system, particularly dopamine release. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain associated with pleasure and reward. When individuals set and accomplish goals, the brain perceives it as a rewarding experience, reinforcing the motivation to pursue future objectives. This positive reinforcement contributes to a sense of accomplishment and well-being. Goal-setting stimulates neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. Pursuing and achieving goals involves learning new skills and acquiring knowledge, which triggers structural and functional changes in the brain. This adaptability enhances cognitive functions and helps maintain a healthy brain.

WAM: Are there specific types of goals or resolutions that are particularly beneficial for mental health, and do they vary depending on an individual’s age or cognitive status?
Dr. Rothenberg: The benefits of goals on mental health can indeed vary based on an individual’s age and cognitive status. Different life stages and cognitive abilities may influence the meaning and benefit of achieving certain goals.

Examples of goals for adults include:
Career and Professional Goals: Pursuing career-related achievements and setting professional goals can provide a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Continuous learning and skill development are also beneficial.

Relationship Goals: Building and maintaining healthy relationships, whether in family, friendships, or romantic partnerships, is crucial for mental well-being in adulthood.
Health and Wellness Goals: Establishing goals related to physical health, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep, can positively impact mental health.
Financial Goals: Setting realistic financial goals and managing finances effectively can reduce stress and contribute to a sense of security and stability.

Goals for older adults may vary somewhat. The most beneficial would be: Lifelong Learning Goals, Social Engagement Goals, Physical Health Goals, Cognitive Stimulation Goals, Routine and Structure Goals, and Supportive environment goals.

There is a growing body of interest in setting meaningful goals for individuals facing cognitive challenges, which is a subject for a completely different discussion.

WAM: What are the biggest obstacles to achieving our goals, and what are some tips for overcoming them?
Dr. Rothenberg: Achieving goals is often a challenging process, and various obstacles can hinder progress. Understanding these obstacles and employing effective strategies to overcome them is crucial for success. Let me list the most important ones:

a) Unrealistic Expectations
b) Lack of Clarity and Specificity
c) Lack of Adaptability
d) Lack of Accountability
e) Procrastination
f) Lack of Motivation
g) Fear of Failure
h) Distractions and Overcommitment
i) Burnout
j) Lack of Resources

By recognizing and addressing these obstacles, individuals can enhance their ability to overcome challenges and successfully achieve their goals. Cultivating resilience, maintaining a positive mindset, and seeking support when needed are essential components of a successful goal-setting journey.

There is a huge benefit to having professional help, from an experienced therapist or coach who would recognize the obstacles, and give you tips for overcoming them.