How the right kind of motivation will make you happier

Plant and motivational poster

hello-i-m-nik-698722-unsplashPhoto by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Like most people, I enjoy praise. It soothes the insecurities that I have about my own intelligence, and encourages me to do more of the praised activity. This is known as extrinsic motivation, and it plays a big role in influencing our behaviour.

Consider your job for a moment – if the people at the top of your company declared that henceforth, you’ll be receiving zero payment for your services, because you should be motivated to do your job for the sake of the job itself, I fully expect you to launch at them with scorching coffee and sharp office equipment. Sadly, few people seek employment because they enjoy it – it’s mostly to earn a wage.

In the world of social media, extrinsic motivation comes in the form of our compulsive little red circle clicking, to check whether any approval has come our way.

Much of our lives are motivated by outside forces, and while it’s a necessary and often valuable source of motivation, there’s a preferable way of being driven to do something: intrinsically. This is motivation from the inside, generated from what you personally value. You may enjoy playing the piano, for no reason other than the playing itself. This kind of internal motivation can drive us towards activities that are incredibly fulfilling. If you had high-achieving parents who forced their ruthless ambition onto you in the form of weekly piano lessons, you’re probably fully aware of how the intrinsic joy of playing an instrument can be ruined. Some kids just won’t enjoy playing the piano, and no amount of coercion will convince them otherwise. When we’re internally motivated to do something, we’re much more likely to keep at it, and to enjoy the activity. Your values are your own. You can be driven to pursuits by a dangling extrinsic carrot, but unless it includes aspects that you personally find valuable, when the carrot is removed you’re going to stop doing it.

External motivators remain important because they can spark interest in new activities, and as such, have the potential to add variety and excitement to our lives. They can offer the push that we need to learn valuable new skills, or acquire challenging knowledge. But they can only take us so far before we need something that’s more in sync with the desires of our soul – that which we enjoy for its own sake. These enterprises are what make life worth living. Intrinsic value is the impetus behind some of our most fulfilling and meaningful undertakings – intimate relationships, listening to music, travelling the world, immersing yourself in nature, etc. For the most part, you’re motivated towards these things because you just enjoy them, not because somebody is nudging you in their direction. Extrinsic motivators can be thought of as the entry point to meaningful activities, which after performing for a while, have the potential to become intrinsically valuable. Even if they don’t, they can still be beneficial to us, as is the case with exercise regimes that are completed for the sake of physical attractiveness, but are improving our health regardless.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Goals that focus on external rewards can have a negative impact on intrinsically motivated activities, because they can change our priorities from the activity itself, to the reward of the activity. This is known as the overjustification effect. If you’re a professional quizzer who has a goal of memorising as many song lyrics as possible in order to win quizzes, you’re probably not going to enjoy listening to the music. Similarly, teaching kids that winning the league trophy is the most important part of playing soccer will probably decrease their enjoyment of soccer, i.e. the part that actually counts. Intrinsic goals, however, can be an incredibly valuable motivator, but you need to be sure that they’re genuinely coming from within. Do you go to the gym mainly because you want to be healthy, or because you’re attempting to develop a hot bod so that you’ll get compliments? You’ll be much more determined and satisfied with an activity if your main motivations are intrinsic.

Research has revealed that adding external rewards to an activity can reduce its intrinsic value. Introducing KPI-driven bonuses to employees who enjoy their jobs is probably a terrible idea, because similarly to goal-setting, the benefit is shifted from the job itself to the potential reward. It’s a damaging change of focus – over time the work itself will become less enjoyable. As something that takes up a gargantuan chunk of our lives, this seems awfully tragic.

It’s important to note that many undertakings are likely to have a combination of internal and external motivations. A pimpled teenage skateboarder might hop onto his wheeled plank because of the thrilling speed, and the intrinsic satisfaction of a perfectly executed trick. He’s also likely to revel in the external admiration of his friends. It’s a question of proportion – if an activity is mostly undertaken due to outside motivators, and has been that way for a while, it might be time to say goodbye to it.

How can you identify your intrinsic motivators, so that you can undergo only the worthiest of pursuits? There’s a few ways:

Know your values
What’s most important to you? What piques your curiosity? This is crucial for everyone to know – a happy life is one that is guided by your values. If you’re unsure what your core values are, consider completing this exercise to illuminate them. By knowing your values, you can identify the activities that are most aligned with them, which can then be pursued for intrinsic, fulfilling purposes.

What happens when you remove rewards?
Contemplate what would happen if you removed external rewards from an activity. Would you still want to own an ostentatious Lamborghini if nobody could see you drive it? Do you really dance that way when in your apartment by yourself? Would you continue to wear those fucking stupid sunglasses if you didn’t think you looked cool?

List out your reasons for an activity
Writing down your reasons for doing something can help to determine its source of motivation. I enjoy writing because:

  • I like combining knowledge and humour to create something valuable.
  • I’m reinforcing useful ideas in my head, and gaining a better understanding in the process. I’m also learning a lot.
  • I’m (hopefully) forming good ideas and helping to spread them, bringing value to the world.
  • I like the approval that I get from people who have benefited from my work.
  • I think I’m pretty good at it.

On the whole, writing is intrinsically motivating for me, but this was already apparent. Some things are obviously enjoyable for intrinsic reasons.


Much of our behaviour is influenced by external factors, but the real goodness comes from within. Occupations of this kind can bring us unadulterated joy, and infuse our lives with an often elusive sense of meaning. By understanding our intrinsic motivators, we can lead much more fulfilling lives, and be at the mercy of desires that are solely our own – aspirations that are truly valuable to us.


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Chasing happiness

Kids running in field

1_VWcdxFLzSx2VvoEkMevAdQPhoto by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Most of us spend our lives fruitlessly chasing happiness, to our everlasting detriment.

It seems the natural thing to do; why on earth would we seek pain? Wouldn’t that make us debased masochists, delightfully sweating in anticipation of a jolly good bit of suffering?

Only pursuing positive experiences, it turns out, is a foolish endeavour. We’re robbing our lives of depth, because most things worth doing involve some degree of pain. It’s tempting to spend our days scrolling through social media like zombie consumers, safely protected from the possibility of a negative emotion emerging in our heads. But nothing is achieved by doing so; no sense of fulfilment will ever arise.

Alain De Botton says it better than anyone else:

The most fulfilling human projects appear inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

– Alain De Botton

We must have the grit and fortitude to battle through pain if we want to achieve anything worthwhile. Sadness is not a disorder to be cured, it’s the path to a more fulfilling life.

The daily struggles that we have with our negative emotions only serve to exacerbate the very problem that we’re trying to solve. Pushing against unfavourable emotion, rather than accepting it, simply makes us feel worse. It’s as though we’re desperate to split ourselves in two: remove the undesirable, sickly sides of ourselves with a rusty blade. Trying to cut it away just poisons us.

It isn’t possible to be half-human. We must accept the parts of ourselves that we loathe; stop resisting the so-called negative aspects of our being. We cannot remove the bad. It’s useless to even try. We’ll live with embarrassment, shame, fear, unwanted desire, sickness, anxiety and every other despicable thought or feeling that we can imagine. The great George Orwell once said:

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”

– George Orwell

What makes us so arrogant to think that we can dispel unhappiness from our lives? This misguided quest of attempting to make every single moment the happiest it can possibly be only results in inevitable disappointment; a bad taste in our mouths that we’ve been trying to wash out since adolescence. We’re destined for a rollercoaster of emotions:

“Fate guides the willing, drags the unwilling.”

– Seneca

We can battle fate and exacerbate the pain, or instead make the choice to spend our lives with an attitude of acceptance. Only by embracing the latter can we truly be happier.


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