Effective Goal Setting Could Help People with Depression

Mental health providers could improve depression treatment by helping people in therapy set attainable goals, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE reports. Although lack of motivation often appears on lists of depression symptoms, the study found people with depression were not less motivated than those without depression. Instead, people with depression had more difficulties setting goals. They were also less likely to believe they could achieve their goals.

Goal-Setting Habits and Depression

The study followed 42 people with depression recruited from two clinics in England. Researchers compared this group to 51 people without depression from the same region.

Each group made a list of goals. People with depression had as many goals as people without depression, suggesting similar levels of motivation. However, people with depression had more avoidance goals and fewer approach goals. According to the researchers’ definitions, approach goals center around positive actions, such as showing more gratitude or taking more walks. Avoidance goals aim to reduce negative outcomes, such as quitting smoking or reducing angry outbursts.

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People with and without depression assigned similar levels of importance to their goals. However, people with depression were less likely to believe they could achieve their approach goals. They were also more likely to give up on their goals when encountering challenges, and they had greater difficulty setting new goals. This pessimism about goals may help explain why people with depression have trouble achieving the goals they set.

Setting Goals to Treat Depression

The study’s authors say their research provides important clues about goal setting and depression. It may be beneficial for mental health providers working with people with depression to consider helping them set realistic approach goals. By encouraging people with depression to set clear goals, to believe in their ability to achieve those goals, and to persistently pursue goals, providers can help people in therapy move toward more positive outcomes.


  1. Could more effective goals be the key to treating depression? (2016, December 22). Retrieved from http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-12-effective-goals-key-depression.html
  2. Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., O’Dea, C., & Field, M. (2016). Goal fluency, pessimism and disengagement in depression. PLOS ONE, 11(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166259

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