The secret to true happiness is low expectations and insensitivity.

Olivia Goldsmith
Falling into a bank of snow on a perfect January day five weeks after getting new hips.

I knew the title of this post would get your attention.

And if you know me, you know I tend to think big, go for it and make things happen – at least insofar as walking every step to the bitter end of two long distance trails that have a tendency to spit out the young, the brash and the fast.

So why on earth would I send out a post suggesting happiness comes from setting your goals low?

Let’s talk about that!

Recently, I’ve been in charge of spearheading a new podcast for the online hiking site The Trek. It’s been fascinating speaking with experts from myriad backgrounds and interests all addicted to my favorite sport, backpacking.

One such person is Dr. Elizabeth Andre who teaches in the Outdoor Education department at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. She has a Great Course called Outdoor Fundamentals: Everything You Need to Know to Stay Safe.

At first, it seemed logical that our conversation would cover practices every backpacker should know to manage risks, but what really grabbed me in her course was the psychology of risk – meaning our inability to control our emotions, habits and prejudices when making decisions, ones that often mean the difference between an uncomfortable experience and a devastating one.

My speed is increasing and I hardly notice my prosthetics.

As we spoke, I thought of the concepts of “summit fever” and “sunk-cost fallacy.” These speak to our obsession with a goal, to the point we ignore obvious dangers and might act recklessly to attain said goal. The thinking is often, “I’ve paid so much money –” or “I’ve taken so long to train–” or “I’ve come so far –” with the next sentence being I can’t give up now!

So much has been written about setting high goals and going for it. On the flip side, much has been written about the tragedies of “going for it.” See Deaths on Mount Everest due to Bottlenecks

But curiously, very little is written on setting realistic goals – or maybe I should rephrase that to say, realistic goals (aka low expectations) are not often celebrated as a more powerful means to an end.

Let me explain. When you set one big, hairy, audacious, lofty goal, your life tends to revolve around getting there. You push hard, focussing on it every day and yet, when you can’t reach it, you fail every day – maybe just a little bit, but those little bits, day after day, add up, and the goal begins to feel impossible to reach.

The irony, though, is that if you reach it, the joy you feel inevitably fades quickly and the cycle starts all over.

Day one after surgery number one. It’s a long pathway to being a “full time pedestrian” again, a goal best taken one step at a time.

In addition, that feeling of having to achieve the one big goal, puts blinders on us, feeding into “summit fever” that we need to get this one thing at all costs.

The solution is rather than set goals, build systems. Systems are tiny, bite-sized goals with built-in flexibility. When I looked at months of healing before I could return to some sense of normalcy as a backpacker, it was impossible to digest – too big, too long, too intimidating.

The same held for long thru-hikes, where the end was certainly in mind, but was too far away to comprehend. Every day required patience and a kind of gentleness with myself to make that particular portion a success.

Oddly enough, when we create a system, we find more joy in our accomplishments, because each day brings its own rewards and discoveries, especially if we stay more in the present, and focus ourselves in the “now” of our bite-sized goals.

So “set your sights low” within the context of setting them high, and stay insensitive – and flexible – to your emotions telling you that you have to go for that one goal no matter what. You will find more joy in the small victories, I guarantee it, and before you know it, you’ll be at the summit.

The day I walked to the end of Pike Island was a big (small) success.


  1. Pingback:out with the old, in with the new | blissful hiker

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