I want to try to make as clear as I can, and briefly, just why Intrinsic motivation gets so much glory. Especially because it can sound idealistic and unconvincing, even cheesy. So we’ve gotta understand it.
The core issue is the SOURCE of your motivations. Where do the motivations come from? Inside or outside? Your own deep sense of self? Or the expectations, pressures of others? Or your own insecurities?
A powerful theory in psychology, Self Determination Theory, describes different types of motivation varying from Extrinsic to Intrinsic, with a few important subcategories. What is important, essentially, is that when the person feels more AUTONOMY in their goal pursuit, they will be more intrinsically motivated. And the consequences of that are huge!
1) Intrinsic motivation is more RESILIENT. This is because the point of engaging in intrinsically motivated things is NOT to achieve some specific goal, meet some external standard, or receive any particular thing from the world (like victory, or praise, or money, or a reward…). So like the house built on rock, it can weather the storm, when difficulties arise. But the house built on the sand of continual rewards and external reinforcements, gets washed away.
When the going gets tough, like when you fail, or lose, or there’s a really steep learning curve, and the rewards stop flowing, the extrinsically motivated start thinking how they don’t want to do this anymore, whereas the intrinsically motivated dig in, try harder, don’t give up. After all, even “failure” is just a learning experience, if you’re not too distressed and judgemental about having “failed.”
And the thing is, practically every worthwhile thing in life involves challenges, setbacks, struggle, failure sometimes, vulnerability, risk, and lots of other stuff that’s pretty hard for the extrinsically motivated person to handle.
(NOTE: There’s one other ENORMOUS problem with extrinsic motivation, but it’s so freaking huge, it deserves a whole discussion all by itself. So, for now, it’ll be a mystery. At some point though, we’ll discuss the totally boring-sounding “over justification effect”, and why it will (or at least should) change how almost all of us do almost everything. Like, say, raising our children. Hooo-weee, this is a big one. Stay tuned….)
2) Intrinsic motivation is more SUSTAINABLE, and therefore, wins over the long-term. Just think, do you want to pursue “the daily grind”, so you can Thank God It’s Friday, and try to stave off feeling like a meaningless cog in a machine you don’t care about, for as long as you can? Isn’t there a better way to get through life than gritting your teeth and bearing it?
Imagine if, instead, the behaviours we had to do flowed naturally, spontaneously, seemingly effortlessly. Even if you think that’s not possible, just imagine….imagine if it was possible.
Well, that’s what Intrinsic Motivation does for us. Instead of having to engage our willpower, often overriding other desires or things we want to do more, Intrinsic motivation just pulls us forward.
Rumi said, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.”
The reason that Extrinsic Motivation doesn’t have this magic power is that it requires willpower. In psych-babble, it ‘exacts a self-regulatory cost’. This means that you have to TRY, engage your will, get off your lazy butt, and actually CHOOSE to get yourself into action. This sounds way suckier than Intrinsic Motivation, which actually can recharge your willpower. It can be effortless. Think of the kid who can’t concentrate on homework to save his life, but can enter a completely absorbed, transcendent Flow state for hours at a time playing video games or shooting hoops in the driveway.
To understand this, think of the kinds of feelings that are intrinsically motivating — enjoyment, challenge, fascination, playfulness, authenticity or value-congruence….also known as “standing in your own skin”. Doing these things is super-easy, because you like them! They are awesome! You feel deeply engaged and like what you’re doing is inherently worthwhile. That’s why it doesn’t, ultimately matter if you win or lose or how things turn out. Because the reason for ‘doing the thing’ is the thing itself (or the value it represents). It’s the PROCESS, not the OUTCOME, that matters.
3) Intrinsic motivation makes you HAPPIER!
Now, I need to qualify this. It doesn’t really make you “happier”, especially not in any particular moment. For example, go find someone who is 100% Introjected, and is playing a game entirely for the self-esteem stroking they hope to receive from victory, And then that victory happens. And you try and tell me that person is not “happy”? While they jump up and down pumping their fist in the air and singing We Are The Champions.
But I mean ‘real happiness’. Something more like fulfillment. Or contentment. Serenity maybe? Awe? Gratitude? Good…..things…..not just momentary, ephemeral feelings of “yay! I rule!” Cuz you know, those never last. Oh, AND you have to keep winning, so even their temporary kick is entirely contingent on receiving something positive. And the rest of the time, all that non-winning time, you’re gonna be anxious, disappointed, angry, and other bad stuff like that. So, to me, this Land of Extrinsic Motivation is not really “motivation” at all, not in the sense of a person being self-disciplined, having willpower and stuff like we normally think of when we think of people ‘motivating’ themselves…..this is more like “addiction”.
Do you really think that getting through life continually dependent on getting your next ego ‘fix’ or pleasure kick is the best way? …..I mean, call me crazy but….
Rather than our culture’s general obsession with “happiness”, this deeper kind of fulfillment hearkens back to the ancient idea of eudaimonia (you-die-moan-ee-ah). Which, when you spell it out phonetically like that, sounds pretty morbid. But it’s actually way cooler than dying and moaning. It roughly means “excellence”.
Aristotle was all over eudaimonia, arguing it was the kind of good, wise life that came from the “expression of virtue”. Virtue is a pretty ginormous topic; Robert Pirsig drove himself to a breakdown trying to rigorously ground Quality, which was aiming at the same thing, roughly speaking. We’ll take these up in future posts. For now, let’s go the pop-psych route a la Dr. Marty Seligman, and think about Eudaimonia as “authentic happiness”.
Intuitively, it makes sense right? There’s superficial, pleasure and ego-based happiness, and then there’s deeper, more growth oriented, grounded-in-fundamental-human-nature-type stuff, called Eudaimonia. Works for me.
So Intrinsic Motivation: Meaning + Enjoyment.
It’s what all the cool kids are into…