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To Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life, Seek These Goals

Striving is essential but so is the proper motivation.

Key points

  • According to self-determination theory (SDT), intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic ones promote well-being.
  • A new, large-scale meta-analysis supports the value of intrinsic striving for psychological health.
  • Intrinsic striving will help ensure that the path you follow through is motivating and fulfilling.

You may not think about your life goals on a daily basis, if specifically at all. Yet, your behavior on that daily basis does reflect the overarching purpose you place on your life. Do you find yourself preoccupied with how you look to others, or do you believe it’s most important to focus on the internal states that contribute to your physical and mental health?

At the same time, would you describe your actions as oriented toward providing you with creature comforts that wealth can provide? Or do you devote most of your efforts toward expressing your unique abilities and interests? One final question: Do you see relationships as ways to get ahead, or do you value relationships for their love and understanding?

These central questions lie at the heart of self-determination theory (SDT), which proposes that striving for the so-called “extrinsic” rewards of wealth, fame, and recognition can stymie your ability to achieve true inner happiness. Such motivations interfere with well-being because they are based on the comparisons you make of yourself to others, comparisons that are destined to be never-ending. In the words of the authors of a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “even when achieved, extrinsic aspirations are perpetually out of reach because people require an increasing dose of ‘the remedy’ to keep receiving its ostensible benefit” (p. 874).

Instead, the path to well-being lies in seeking to fulfill the “intrinsic” rewards associated with personal growth, engagement in emotionally gratifying relationships, giving to others, and your own physical health. Pursuit of these goals helps you satisfy your needs for autonomy (volition), competence (ability), and relatedness (closeness to others).

Although SDT is a highly popular theory, the question remains as to whether its principles hold up to systematic empirical scrutiny. The purpose of the study by Bradshaw et al. was to conduct just such a hard-nosed review.

Taking the Measure of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Across the decades of research and theorizing on SDT, this question of extrinsic vs. intrinsic goals' relationship to well-being falls into the specific framework known as “goal contents theory” the idea that “the specific content of individuals’ life goals also contributes meaningfully to their well-being” (p. 873). Proving its validity requires not more research, the Australian research team proposes, but research that comprehensively examines the existing data.

Using meta-analysis to subject prior research to rigorous scrutiny, Bradshaw et al. set forth a series of hypotheses based on differing ways to compare the contributions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to measures both of well-being and of “ill-being,” or sense of despair and futility. The options expressed in their hypotheses contrast the two types of motivation in their impact on both well- and ill-being.

A major advantage along with the sheer scope of this study was that it included not just typical one-shot correlational studies but also longitudinal research in which motivation at Time 1 could be evaluated in terms of its effects on well- or ill-being at Time 2 (or beyond). Now, instead of being limited by the “correlation does not equal causation” problem, the authors could draw causal inferences. Beyond this feature, the meta-analysis allowed for comparisons to be made by sex/gender, age, nationality, and social class, which could all be important influences on both well-being and motivation.

What’s Your Motivation?

The one standard across all of the 92 studies (involving more than 70,000 participants worldwide) was that they employed the same questionnaire measure assessing motivation for intrinsic and extrinsic goals. This questionnaire, called the Aspirations Index, includes items that fall into seven categories representing the two categories of goals. See how you would answer these sample items; each involves rating yourself from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very) according to importance, likelihood of achievement, and attainment:

  1. To be a very wealthy person
  2. To grow and learn new things
  3. To have my name known by many people
  4. To have good friends I can count on
  5. To feel good about my level of physical fitness
  6. To work for the betterment of society
  7. To keep up with fashions in hair and clothing

The extrinsic goals as illustrated with these items include wealth (#1), fame (#3), and image (#7); intrinsic goals include self-growth (#2), relationships (#4), health (#5), and community (#6).

You may find it interesting to compare your weighing of the intrinsic vs. extrinsic items as well as comparing your present vs. future attainment of each goal. Importance alone, however, is a key indicator and, across the multiple items of the Aspirations Index, would then serve as the value you would use in evaluating its impact on your well-being.

With this in mind, you might get a better appreciation of why it is so futile to keep pursuing extrinsic goals to the exclusion or even discounting of intrinsic ones. Can you ever have enough fame? Will you ever have as great an image as you would like, and will this last over time? Conversely, seeking relationships and self-growth might propel you toward fulfilling those basic human needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

Across the analyses, including demographic controls, the findings clearly supported the hypothesis that linked higher intrinsic motivation to greater well-being and higher extrinsic motivation to greater ill-being. However, there was one proviso in that any motivation was better than none at all: “Striving,” the authors concluded, “is better than amotivation.”

All in all, apart from this somewhat obvious fact, the authors landed heavily on the side of intrinsic motivation’s value in promoting psychological health: “When it comes to goals, happiness appears to be of the heartstrings, and not of the purse strings." The findings support, then, what you might consider the “greedy” view of extrinsic motivation—namely, that it “crowds out” any other form of motivation once it takes over your life. It’s difficult to feel that you’re in control of your life when you’re constantly fretting about how others perceive you.

How to Boost Your Intrinsic Motivation

Now that you’ve contrasted your own sets of goals, were you surprised by your ratings? Was image more important than friendship? What about health? Thinking, too, about your levels of attainment, which goals that you see yourself as having achieved make you feel better about yourself?

Another interesting feature of the results was that age played a very minor, if even perceptible, role in influencing the relationship between motivation and well- or ill-being. Applying this to yourself, it seems safe to conclude that being happy throughout life seems to remain a constant function of the desire to realize your innermost needs. Furthermore, unlike extrinsic goals, intrinsic goals are self-propelling and becoming reinforcing in and of themselves. You don’t have to check them off a list and say “done”; nor do you have to feel deficient because you’re still striving for them.

To sum up, having goals is clearly an important component of a well-lived life. To ensure that the goals that maintain your well-being allow you to feel that your life indeed is worthwhile, turning extrinsic into intrinsic will provide you with the most fulfilling pathway, no matter what your age.

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Bradshaw, E. L., Conigrave, J. H., Steward, B. A., Ferber, K. A., Parker, P. D., & Ryan, R. M. (2023). A meta-analysis of the dark side of the American dream: Evidence for the universal wellness costs of prioritizing extrinsic over intrinsic goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 124(4), 873–899. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000431

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