The Positive Psychology of Motivation and Wellbeing

Ever typed “how to self-motivate” into a search engine?

Were you looking for the best way to clear your to-do list, or were you searching for something bigger, more long-term?

Whatever you were after, you’re not alone – motivation has fascinated psychologists, helping practitioners, and researchers for decades. We want to know how it works, for one, and even more curiously – whether what we want actually makes us happy.

Here’s a look at how we can understand motivation and wellbeing and their links to positive psychology, so you can better understand both yourself and those you help.

This article contains:

Understanding Motivation
Motivation, Wellbeing and Self-Determination Theory
Motivation and Flow
Motivation and Success
Motivation and Incentives
A Take-Home Message

Understanding Motivation

Imagine – you may not need to – that you’re a life coach. One morning, you open an email from a prospective client, and as you scroll through it, you spot an all-too-familiar line: “I could use some help getting motivated…”

Understanding the link between motivation and wellbeing is critical if we want to help our clients thrive, succeed, and flourish. And an understanding of why we want what we want is a great place to start.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

In 1985, Deci and Ryan proposed one of the best-known (and most well-substantiated) motivation theories in this field: Self-Determination Theory. It argues that there are two primary reasons why humans desire certain things:

Because we’re extrinsically motivated; or
We’re intrinsically motivated.
Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation describes a situation where humans engage in an activity “because it leads to some separate consequence” (Deci & Ryan, 2002, p.15). In other words, we desire a specific outcome because it’s linked to rewards, or because that result helps us avoid something negative.

Using your prospective client’s hypothetical email, for instance, you might see some sentences like: “I really want a career change because I’m earning peanuts.” If you’re a researcher, you might already have thought of the Skinner Box.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is when humans act a certain way because “…the activity itself is interesting and spontaneously satisfying…because of the positive feelings resulting from the activities themselves” (Deci & Ryan, 2008, p.15).

It might be a little harder for your hypothetical client to put their finger on this one, but it could look something like: “It’s time for me to pursue what I love…being a painter/working with animals/etc.”

At this point already, we can at least start to see how both types of motivation are linked to wellbeing. In other words, we want what we want because we’re extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.

But let’s look a little closer at Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to learn how these two work – the ‘why.’

Motivation, Wellbeing and Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a broad framework for what underpins our desires and volitions; it concerns personality and motivation and has two main premises (Deci & Ryan, 2002):

First, that our behaviors are driven by a need for growth. To have an integrated (“synthesized”) self-concept, we as humans need to actualize our potentials. Put differently, people are driven to experience novel stimuli, stretch their capacities, and express their talents to feel whole and that they are “true” to who they are.

Second, SDT argues that intrinsic motivation is critical. We need more than external rewards, and being intrinsically motivated – acting autonomously – is another crucial part of acting in accordance with our sense of self.
In a Nutshell

Positive psychologists are massively interested in intrinsic motivation and its links to our wellbeing and sense of self. Research has found that the will to attain mastery is more beneficial for performance than an actual performance goal (Utman, 1997), and this comes down to the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

If we concentrate on getting better at something, and we do so for the inherent satisfaction of mastery, we’re – in layperson’s terms – authentic to who we are. This is one reason why we want what we want.

At the same time, we’re more likely to enjoy the experience on a much deeper level, which is what psychologists refer to as ‘flow.’

Also, you can utilize these 27 self-determination skills and activities.

Motivation and Flow

How are flow and motivation related? If you’re not familiar with the flow concept, it refers to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term for an autotelic state we experience when we find ourselves: “completely involved in an activity for its own sake” (Geirland, 1996).

“Autotelic” comes from the Greek words “auto” for self and “telic” for goal – Deci and Ryan’s (2002) autonomous motivation.

Flow not only lifts the spirit momentarily (unlike an external reward), but it also builds psychological capital over time, which is a significant component of human growth (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Flow and Motivation at Work

So the good news from the field of positive psychology is that intrinsically motivated activities not only lead to better performance, but they also make us happier if the conditions are right for us to enter a flow state.

These fundamental conditions include two things:

We need to possess the necessary skills for the task (it can’t be insanely difficult and beyond our capabilities); and
The assignment must be challenging – in other words, if it’s too easy, we’ll get bored.

For what it’s worth, it is why watching TV is not considered a flow experience. Even though time flies when we’re watching television, no skills are required, and the activity is not challenging. Consequently, we are not building psychological capital.

When we find that skill which leads to an autotelic experience of flow – not only will we master it, but we will also become happier and ensure our personal growth over time.

For Interest’s Sake

Before conducting his flow experiments, Csikszentmihalyi observed people who were ‘wrapped up’ in pastimes they truly loved and was struck by their singular focus and resolve (Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976).

Coining the concept rather beautifully, his work was then expanded on by countless other motivation researchers such as Deci and Ryan, whose intrinsic motivation concept we just explored. While Csikszentmihalyi’s curiosity was initially piqued by an artist who was ‘in the zone’ while painting, many other activities can put individuals into a flow state.

Read more about this in What Is Flow?

Motivation and Success

What is success, really?

The economic principle of utility – more equals better – precludes the assumption that the possibility of acquiring more goods motivates humans. According to ‘old-school’ management thinking, the more successful we are in our careers  – the more we earn. The happier we are then supposed to be.

But is this really the case?

Success vs. Happiness (and Productivity)

In stark contrast to these somewhat dated ideals, research seems to point toward the idea that happiness often precedes success (Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2008).

That is, the opposite may be true: happy people are less likely to be unemployed, they are usually more satisfied with their jobs, and they are also more likely to be supported by their co-workers (Achor, 2011).

Researchers Cabanas & Sanchez-Gonzales (2016) even go so far as to claim this is the inverse of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy; they suggest happiness should be considered a first-need category if job satisfaction and performance are to follow. Indeed, with all basic needs met, ‘soft’ factors may play a central role in life satisfaction since we live in an era where time, not money, is the scarce resource.

But if you still aren’t ready to divorce the ideas of success and the bottom line, there is plenty of empirical evidence suggesting that intrinsically motivated people are generally more productive, efficient, and perform better in their roles (Joo et al., 2010; Masoud & Camal, 2010; Srivastava & Barmola, 2012).

Motivation and Incentives

Intrinsic motivation has its place in companies, too – in organizational culture, vision, strategy, and more.

Let’s see what its implications are for practitioners by looking at motivation in positive organizational psychology.

In Organizations

Some companies do still use a carrot and stick approach to motivate their staff, despite long-standing evidence that monetary rewards don’t enhance intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). But does it work?

Interestingly, recent research finds that the process of how compensation is determined and communicated – rather than the compensation itself – may be what decides motivation (Olafsen et al., 2015). Perceived fairness at work, that is, might be a better determinant of job satisfaction than the actual salary.

As an example, Person A probably won’t mind getting fewer bonuses than Person B if he can understand and relate to the rationale behind this. He’s actually quite likely to feel satisfied because he perceives that he’s working in a fair organization.

The study also found a positive correlation between the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness and an employee’s intrinsic work motivation.

Hence, staff needs to feel they have what it takes to be successful in the job, they need to be able to work independently, and they need to have a bond with some of their co-workers to experience job satisfaction (Pink, 2009).

Do External Rewards Belong in the Workplace?

There’s always a ‘but,’ so don’t abandon all your extrinsic rewards for this reason alone – at least not just yet.

Just to confuse things, recent research suggests short-term rewards won’t necessarily damage long-term intrinsic motivation (Goswami & Urminsky, 2017). Yes, they may cause our task engagement to drop after we’ve been rewarded, but according to Goswami and Urminsky’s data, that drop might only be transient, small, and brief.

In a study of 91 participants, the researchers asked subjects to choose between doing a short math problem or watching a brief video. For half the people, an incentive was offered to do the math question rather than the video, and their willingness to do so was assessed.

Once the rewards were removed (after many trials), the net effect of the paid incentive was almost negligible. After even more tests, the trend was even reversed, with previously-paid participants choosing math questions more frequently for zero reward.

So should we abandon extrinsic rewards entirely?

Goswami and Urminsky’s results would suggest probably not – it likely won’t damage people’s long-term motivation. But instead of offering only financial rewards, organizations should strive to improve what matters to employees to increase their intrinsic motivation.

And how can they do this? We can return to Pink’s research for a better idea – more specifically, his findings that autonomy, mastery, and purpose correlate positively with performance and job satisfaction (2009).

If employees feel like they are working toward a meaningful purpose, and have sufficient freedom around how to achieve that vision, we can tick at least two of those boxes. If they are free to pick and choose their ‘how,’ they will quite likely move toward intrinsically motivating pathways – tasks and approaches they find engaging and interesting.

As they become better and more skilled at these approaches, they can move toward mastery, fuelled by that innate need for growth – intrinsic motivation.

A Take-Home Message

In summary, it may still be a while until we understand why we want what we want. In the meantime, we are well on our way to understanding what drives our motivation and how we can motivate ourselves and others towards a happier, more satisfied, and successful life.

How do you motivate yourself and others? Or, if you struggle with motivation, what holds you back? Share your stories with us in the comment box below.

Want to learn more about the right and wrong way to motivate?

Watch Daniel Pink’s TEDtalk and get motivated the right way!

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