I Is For... Intrinsic MotivationRead Now
We Don't Have To Be Wildly Successful. We Just Need To Do What We Like
We don't all have to be chasing rainbows, the big bucks, the dreams of fame and recognition. The real joy lies in simply doing something we really like
What gets your juices flowing? What do you do regardless of reward or recognition? No-one's asked you to do it, no-one's paying you to do it, but you do it anyway, because it makes you happy.
If there is anything at all, you have hit the gold standard, you have nailed intrinsic motivation, a doorway to life satisfaction, meaning, purpose and flow.
The ability to be make ourselves happy, independent of anyone else, or any external factors (like wealth, geography, a network of contacts etc) is a bonafide superpower.
It is perhaps the single most important skill we will stumble across in our lives.
It can give our lives meaning, when perhaps things aren't going our way - and give us the necessary fortitude and willingness to persevere, even if we are not receiving validation for our efforts.
It's the polar opposite of obligation.
This is something we do purely because we want to, because there is something about this activity that means something to us, that has value.
It allows us to experience that feeling of autonomy in a singular area of our lives, even when we lack it in others.
And it means we can actually have thrilling inner lives even if we appear to be living distinctly average outer ones.
The Work Of Edward Deci
Intrinsic motivation theorist Edward Deci first realised this as a kid, as most of us do (and as he discusses in the first video, below).
He recognised that there were certain classes at school that gripped him, while others left him cold and no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't muster up the same levels of enthusiasm for them.
He had stumbled across the idea that we have natural inclinations towards certain topics or activities which become a key factor in successfully meeting key psychological needs.
He ascertains that it is the honouring of these principles that can lay the pathways to the areas of our lives that are essential to our psychological well-being: feeling happy, experiencing life satisfaction, feeling that we are valued, that we are good at something, feeling a sense of control of our lives and having a sense of purpose:
"You have needs of the psyche, of the mind. There are certain things that we need to be experiencing in ongoing ways that are really evolved, that allow us to grow, to develop, to be healthy."
The 3 Requirements
There are three key requirements that need to be met in order to achieve this, he explains and it's the third that raises eyebrows:
We need to feel competent or effective, we need relatedness and we need autonomy:
"Autonomy means that you do some activity, whatever it is we're talking about, with a full sense of willingness and volition. If you got reflective in that moment you would think, 'yes, this is what I choose to be doing right now.' ... And it's coming from that inner activity and engagement and excitement that we all have that's part of who we are."
The Problem With Control
On the other side, "controlled motivation" is about doing something because we feel we have to, whether that pressure comes from other people, society-at-large, material gain - or even ourselves. And needless to say, it's not a great place to be in.
Feeling controlled, micro-managed, coerced with rewards (even if it is with attractive sums of money), in a job we don't like can make us lose interest, sap our motivation and make us money-oriented.
And that can hammer us psychologically, says Deci in the second video (also below):
"When you're being controlled, you're experiencing a lot of internal anxiety and internal pressure and that comes out in a whole range of different negative psychological consequences... So really controlled motivation, we found, is a precursor of psychopathology, it's a precursor of addiction and so on."
So the next time we feel that drag, that sense, at best, that we are swimming against the tide, we need to ask ourselves:
We all have areas of our lives where the answer is "yes" to some of these questions. And it's not a question of radically changing everything if it's not practical.
But if there are any areas of our lives where we can feel that sense of freedom (even if it's a hobby), it's an important question to ask.
It could be vital in safeguarding not only our happiness - but our mental and physical health.