Harnessing the Happiness-Boosting Power of Motivation

Looking inward to find your drive may provide the energy for sustained achievement and well-being.

a smiling white middle aged man with a beard sits in an adult learning class as he enjoys the lesson

Updated on January 19, 2023.

Money? Nope. Fame? Nah. Good looks? Nuh-uh. Despite their allure, research shows that none of these things paves the way to finding happiness. What does?

It turns out that knowing what motivates your actions—and using that motivation to your advantage—could be key to understanding what will make you happy over the long term.

Internal versus external rewards

The definition of happiness is different for everyone. Spending an evening watching a Netflix series may be pure bliss to some, while others may thrive on dancing the night away surrounded by a dozen of their closest friends.

As important as it is to consider what you do to achieve happiness, why you do it may have an even greater impact. Being motivated by internal factors (known as intrinsic motivation) is more likely to make you happy than being driven by external (or extrinsic) factors.

Intrinsic motivation involves doing something because you are inherently interested in it. You take yoga classes because you love the experience of getting in touch with yourself and understanding the mind-body connection. You decide to study Italian because you enjoy gaining knowledge. You volunteer at a local homeless shelter because it aligns with your moral sense of helping others in need.

Extrinsic motivation involves doing something to get a reward or to avoid punishment. You play sports because you crave the first-place prize. You work long hours because you want a promotion. You take on extra tasks as work (and log those extra hours), so you don’t get a poor grade on your annual review (or worse).  

How your values can affect your motivation

Have you ever experienced a feeling of letdown after a major event or holiday? There’s a name given to what many people feel in early January: the post-holiday blues.

In one influential study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers polled people after Christmas. They found that those folks who focused on things like spirituality and family were happier after the holiday than those who placed more importance on spending money and receiving gifts.

A psychology researcher named Edward Deci pioneered this line of inquiry, now known as self-determination theory, as a graduate student in 1971. In Deci’s early research, two groups of people were given three puzzles to complete. The first group got no external rewards for doing so, while another group was paid after working on the second puzzle. What Deci found was that members of the second group cared less about figuring out the final puzzle than did people in the first group. Why?

While members of the first group were driven by a sense of self-agency to complete each puzzle, members of the second group who had already received their reward were less motivated to pursue the final puzzle. What’s more, according to Deci, that external motivation destroyed the internal motivation of the second group to complete the final puzzle. External motivation not only fails to motivate sufficiently, but it may actually undermine our efforts to reach our goals.

According to self-determination theory, happiness comes when people meet three key psychological needs:

  • Autonomy, or having a sense of responsibility for your life
  • Competence, or being able to effectively pursue your goals
  • Relatedness, where you form and keep bonds with others

Seeking extrinsic rewards can make us lose motivation and has even been shown to decrease happiness. Materialism is the main extrinsic motivator. According to Tim Kasser, a researcher on happiness, people who are materialistic are more likely to be unhappy, dissatisfied with their lives, and less energetic. They are also more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and to misuse alcohol and smoke cigarettes.

Drawing from within

Much of the research into motivation and happiness looks at goals: What motivates people to set their goals, and when they reach those goals, are they happy?

A study of newly graduated college students published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that those who spent their first two years out of school pursuing materialistic goals (such as wealth and fame) were far less happy than students who achieved more intrinsic personal goals, like getting involved in their communities, nurturing close friendships, and working on inner growth. 

Another study looking at adults in the United States and Singapore found that people who were more materialistic were the least happy. Participants in the study who said they were religious were happier—especially if they thought of religion as something they “are” instead of something they “do.” Another study of college students found that those who were motivated to learn out of a sense of self-efficacy (an intrinsic motivator) were happier than those who were motivated by external goals.

Do external motivators offer any benefit?

External rewards may not be altogether bad, according to experts. They may be useful motivators, but often for short-term goals. As Deci found, once a reward is achieved (you buy yourself a new pair of jeans after losing five pounds), you may lack the motivation to continue the effort over the long term. Extrinsic rewards can also be productive when you need to do something you don’t want to do or need to learn a new skill that doesn’t inherently interest you.

But whereas internal motivation is something like a renewable resource, your supply of external rewards may dwindle over time. Receiving rewards gives you a hit of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that makes you feel good, according to a 2017 study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Dopamine is also associated with helping continue behaviors. It can keep you motivated by knowing if you meet that next goal you’ve set, you’ll be rewarded with another hit of happiness—but you’ve got to keep those rewards coming.

Finding the right balance

Intrinsic goals are often associated with discipline, while external motivation relates closer to willpower, which tends to be shorter-term, situational, and thus less sustainable over the long haul. Finding a healthy balance between the two may be the best way to ensure sustained happiness.

For instance, you may need to lose weight to improve your long-term cardiovascular health and because of a desire to fit into last year’s jeans. Having both motivators working together can help you get out of bed at 6 a.m. to hit the gym on cold winter mornings.

To start crafting your goals, do a personal assessment. Think about your goals and what is keeping you from them or helping you achieve them. What is motivating you? What has worked or not worked for you in the past? Think of how meeting your goals can help make you more autonomous, connected, and competent at something. Because we know that intrinsic motivators are more likely to make us happy, make sure to look inward to find those values—without any rewards attached—that connect to your goals.

Article sources open article sources

Delia O’Hara. The intrinsic motivation of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. American Psychological Association. 2017.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value. Page last updated January 9, 2019.
Kasser, T., Sheldon, K.M. What Makes for a Merry Christmas?. Journal of Happiness Studies. 3, 313–329 (2002).
Evan Nesterak. Materially False: A Q&A with Tim Kasser about the Pursuit of the Good Life through Goods. Behavioral Scientist. September 9, 2014.
Niemiec CP, Ryan RM, Deci EL. The Path Taken: Consequences of Attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations in Post-College Life. J Res Pers. 2009;73(3):291-306.
Swinyard, W.R., Kau, AK. & Phua, HY. Happiness, Materialism, and Religious Experience in the US AND SINGAPORE. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2, 13–32 (2001). 
Di Domenico, S. I., Ryan, R. M. The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 2017;11:145.
Stephanie Watson. Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure. Harvard Health Publishing. July 20, 2021.
Sheldon KM, Ryan RM, Deci EL, Kasser T. The independent effects of goal contents and motives on well-being: it's both what you pursue and why you pursue it. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2004;30(4):475-486.
Wellness @ NIH Quarterly Wellness News. Is Motivation Enough Why Its Not Sufficient To Wait On Motivation To Act On What You Want. February 03, 2020.
Dominique Gummelt, PhD. How to Help Your Clients Develop Intrinsic Motivation for Exercise. American Council on Exercise. January 13, 2015.

More On

Who Benefits From Kindness?


Who Benefits From Kindness?
Everyone benefits from kindness, says Jud Brewer, MD, PhD. Watch Jen Caudle and Dr. Brewer discuss the benefits of kindness.
3 Amazing Benefits of Gratitude


3 Amazing Benefits of Gratitude
The Thanksgiving holiday reminds us to take time out for gratitude. But if you can make thankfulness a core part of your daily mantra, you’ll reap so ...
3 Habits of Happy People


3 Habits of Happy People
Learn how making a few simple moves in your daily life can improve your mood and help you feel better.
Mindfulness and Kindness: Breaking Down the Powerful Connection


Mindfulness and Kindness: Breaking Down the Powerful Connection
Mindfulness is essential for kindness, says Dr. Brewer. In this video, he explains why.
7 tips for a healthy, happy and productive life from the Mayo Clinic


7 tips for a healthy, happy and productive life from the Mayo Clinic
Learn 7 tips to lead a happy, healthy life - from eating nourishing foods to sleeping 8 hours and prioritizing time with friends.