This is a lovely short piece from Arthur Brooks on how to set proper goals in life that can sustain our motivations. Often, we end up setting extrinsic goals, which are in effect, validation by others of our success or capabilities. Arthur cites research studies that show how such goals fail to sustain our motivations in life and we should instead look inwards and find intrinsic motivations that give us satisfaction and enjoyment.
“You can be motivated to do something intrinsically (it gives you satisfaction and enjoyment) or extrinsically (you are given a reward, such as money or recognition). Most people know that intrinsic rewards are the sweeter of the two. That’s basically what graduation speakers mean when they employ hoary nostrums such as “Find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”
But there’s a twist: Psychologists have found that extrinsic rewards can actually extinguish intrinsic rewards, leading us to enjoy our activities less. In a classic 1973 study, researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan showed this in an experiment with preschoolers. The researchers allowed a group of kids to choose their preferred play activities—for example, drawing with markers—which they happily did. The kids were later rewarded for that activity with a certificate featuring a gold seal and a ribbon. The researchers found that after they had been given the certificate, the children became only about half as likely to want to draw when they weren’t offered one. Over the following decades, many studies have shown the same pattern for a wide variety of activities, across many demographic groups.
Relying on external rewards lowers satisfaction. You will like your job less if your primary motivation is prestige or money. You will appreciate your relationships less if you choose your friends and partners based on their social standing. You will relish your vacation less if you choose the destination for how it will look on social media.”
Arthur then goes on to help us with certain questions we can ask of ourselves that can help us identify our intrinsic motivations:
Money, possessions, and power are all characteristics extrinsic to a person. Therefore, emulating them in others will lead you to extrinsic motivations for your own activities, which, as we have seen, will likely lower happiness. Instead, look for admirable intrinsic characteristics in others—virtues such as compassion, faith, fortitude, and honesty. Imitating these characteristics cultivates intrinsic motivations. Thus, they are the best criteria for finding the right role models and mentors to imitate and learn from.
The box-checking exercise tends to be about my wants. Shifting it to others’ needs brings greater well-being. This is straightforward: Decades of research—and millennia of common sense—have shown that self-centeredness leads to fluctuating emotions at best, while a focus on the needs of others can bring stable happiness. And lest you think this makes a person passive or unambitious, note that there is a significant body of evidence showing that a focus on the good of one’s institution (as opposed to oneself) enhances career success as well.
Heavy question, I know. But we all know that sooner or later, it has to be addressed, and the box-checking approach to success manifestly does not do that. It is little more than an exercise in answering the “what” questions of life: what you do for work, what you own, what people think of you. As my friend the management expert Simon Sinek likes to point out, understanding our purpose comes from answers to life’s “why” questions. These answers deliver both success and happiness, but they require serious thought and reflection.”

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