It’s not surprising that the beginning of each new year finds me reviewing my life and looking forward to the changes I want to see. 

Looking back over the last year, I see that some of my best intentions for meaningful self-improvement during the year fell short. I didn’t do all that I might have to achieve my “heart goals.”

Heart goals are the ones that resonate with our inner life of values, character development and desire for emotional mastery and intelligence. If we approach them with curiosity, heart goals give us information about our strengths. They can also teach us deep truths about the world we live in. 

In a sense, heart goals are always a work in progress, so no one should berate themselves for imperfections in these areas.

On the other hand, reflecting on the year, I know I might have done better if I had put systems in place that would remind me every day of the concrete behaviors I could identify that would serve as guide posts or signals that I was not losing sight of my heart goals. 

Ask questions first

Last January, I vowed to handle emotionally volatile situations by asking questions first. I counseled myself that, when I found anger rising, I could try stepping into an attitude of curiosity first, with simple questions: Must I speak now, or can I understand better first? Must I act this second? Is anger my only feeling, or do I feel confusion, hurt or pain, as well? Could I remember my love for this person, albeit even as an abstraction in that moment? Could I walk calmly onto a bridge of understanding before I speak or act?”

This year, I have discovered that I value curiosity for its own sake, not solely because it is a tool for emotional intelligence. Curiosity itself is a way of experiencing the world that generates growth and self-improvement. 

My rediscovered heart goal is to be a more curious person. This year, I will experiment with a “curiosity ritual” each morning. When I brush my teeth in the morning, I can ask myself, What will I learn about myself today? How will the world be different today?

Practice acts of compassion 

Last year, I planned to establish a consistent practice of mindful, compassionate actions, similar to the practice of yoga or a meditation practice. I framed this goal as one means to achieve personal happiness. This is consistent with research that shows that happiness is connected to performing acts of kindness. 

In looking back, I would have been better equipped to achieve the goal if I had recognized it more clearly as a heart goal. 

Being compassionate is a goal that stands on its own. It resonates with my values and gives its own reward of satisfaction. I don’t really want to be a person who wakes each morning with the foremost question on my mind being, “What will make me happy today?” I will be more likely to remember to act on a goal throughout the day if it starts with a question like, “Is there a situation I will encounter today that will let me explore the ways compassion spreads its benefits?” 

These kindnesses don’t need to be momentous; an authentic smile will suffice. Kindness can be random and anonymous, or planned and deeply personal.

And, at the end of each day, perhaps taking note of kindnesses received and given will help me consolidate these learnings. Research shows that interaction with the physical world helps to intensify emotional meaning, so perhaps keeping a physical journal would be useful. 

Give meaning to making a living

The heart goals that emerge as we make a living include those results we notice when we become a finer person. 

For example, when my self-employed clients suffer emotionally from a decline in sales, I ask them to look for high points that are not necessarily related to sales: Did they feel happy because they were kind? Did they share a moment of empathy with a potential customer that made them both feel good about life? Did they make a potential customer laugh in the middle of a bad day?

We need successes along the way that go beyond our livelihood to keep us from giving up. These experiences sustain optimism, build self-esteem and build our “hope bank account” back up to where we can be effective again. 

On one level, these are the effects of how we do business and they are within our control regardless of the economic climate. Giving empathy, sharing laughter or inspiring hope for someone else gives meaning that goes beyond our livelihood. 

These heart goals can help achieve sustainable happiness even in the midst of financial challenge. 

Delve into goals that inspire

Two years ago, I wrote in this column, “Don’t assume it represents a flaw in your character if you have failed to act on certain goals you set for the coming year. Many times, we set goals that are not very inspiring and then unfairly berate ourselves when we, quite wisely, stop working toward them.” 

So it seems appropriate that I take this seriously in 2012. I plan to delve more deeply into my heart goals by being curious enough to ask questions, seeking out opportunities for compassion and paying attention to the meaning that rides below the surface in how I make my living. These are worthy goals, on their own account, that arise from quite commonly held human values. 

I know that goals that inspire me are never done and that they will continue to motivate me all year. 

LAURA WORTH, MSW, is a life and business coach. She is also the publisher and editor of community-based, neighborhood-specific Web directories for local health and wellness arts via SoundWellnessCommunity.com. Or visit www.coachworth.com.