Intrinsic Motivation: What It Is and How It Drives Change in Your Life


If you’ve ever picked up a musical instrument, let’s say a guitar, as a hobby, then you may be familiar with the experience of joyfully losing yourself in the process of learning everything about it. Time seems to fly when you’re mastering chords and strumming techniques. And each new level of mastery you achieve delivers a warm glow of satisfaction, even if no one is there to witness your achievement.

This experience of being moved to action by internal rewards is what’s known as intrinsic motivation.

Its opposite is what’s known as extrinsic motivation, which all of us are more than familiar with. Extrinsic motivation is propelled by external rewards, which include things like receiving a good grade on a school project or a promotion at work for a job well done. It also includes avoiding punishment.

What makes intrinsic motivation so powerful

What makes intrinsic motivation so powerful

Intrinsic motivation has a few key things going for it that extrinsic motivation simply can’t match.

For one, internal rewards are driven by enjoyment and curiosity and are naturally satisfying. They compel us to explore and learn and live up to our own potential, which is fundamentally exciting and is often a form of spiritual awakening as well.

Hobbies, like the aforementioned guitar playing, are typically driven by intrinsic motivations. We do them because they bring us joy that isn’t dependent on any external reward being handed to us. We read the book because it stimulates our mind and imagination. We write in our journal because it feels good to put our thoughts to paper. We play chess because the mental challenge is exhilarating.

A sense of meaning is generated by these activities, and it comes from within. No external reward can provoke quite the same sense of significance. External rewards are, of course, nice to receive, but their impact tends to be fleeting, and in the worst cases, they can actually have a de-motivating effect. Studies have shown that attaching extrinsic rewards to an activity that is already internally rewarding tends to diminish the inner satisfaction we feel about it. It seems that the presence of an external reward dulls the natural rush of joy we feel and decreases our interest in the activity for its own sake.

Lessons about intrinsic motivation

Lessons about intrinsic motivation from the worlds of work and education

Two areas of life where motivation comes into play in a major way are school and work. Many educational institutions and workplaces are built on systems that use external rewards to drive achievement. The underlying belief is that learning and work are generally boring and that people need to be nudged by some external incentive into doing them.

Studies have shown that external incentives are a powerful way to boost productivity, such as offering a cash bonus to complete a project quickly. However, external incentives do not have the same ability to influence the quality of a person’s work.

The quality of a person’s work output is much more influenced by whether they find the task personally engaging and satisfying. In other words, if you have a natural interest in doing a good job and you find the job to be interesting, fun, engaging, and captivating, you are much more likely to generate new ideas and solutions that haven’t been tried before.

When you are powered by intrinsic motivation, the focus shifts from getting the job done in order to receive the reward, to doing the task for the sake of the task and finding joy in completing it in a new, novel, and excellent way.

Essentially, external rewards are effective at boosting productivity and output, but they lag far behind internal rewards in being able to spur quality and creativity.

The question then becomes, how do we foster intrinsic motivation?

Educational researchers have identified several factors that increase intrinsic motivation:

  • Challenge
    Motivation tends to be higher when a person is pursuing a goal that is attainable, but not necessarily guaranteed, and when the goal has some personal meaning for them.
  • Control
    People are more likely to be intrinsically motivated when they have the personal autonomy over themselves and the power to choose what they pursue as well as the setting in which they pursue it.
  • Cooperation
    Situations that involve helping others also promote intrinsic motivation, as many people find a natural satisfaction in being of service to others.
  • Competition
    People also tend to be motivated when they have the opportunity to measure them against others in a way that reflects well on themselves.
  • Curiosity
    Having one’s curiosity piqued, particularly by something in their physical surroundings, is a powerful source of motivation to investigate further and learn more.
  • Recognition
    Having an accomplishment acknowledged is another effective way to spur an internal desire to perform at a higher level and achieve more.

These findings offer important guidance for anyone who wants to create the conditions for high quality, creative, and fulfilling work to be produced, whether it’s in a school, work, or personal environment.

Offering people the opportunity to tackle interesting and worthwhile challenges in a way that offers them autonomy and control over the process is much more likely to yield positive results than a mere bonus or pat on the back could.

Why your perspective on rewards matters

As noted above, studies have demonstrated that when external rewards are given in situations where intrinsic motivation is already at play, they tend to diminish the internal rewards a person experiences. Put simply, when you are given an external reward for an activity you find personally satisfying, your personal satisfaction may actually go down.

Now, there are factors that impact whether or not your intrinsic motivation goes up or down in the fact of an external reward. The nature of the event itself and how you view it is one of them.

For example, a dancer who is competing in a dance competition can view a first place prize in one of two ways:

  • As an affirmation of their hard work and excellence
  • As a form of coercion or bribe

Their view of the external reward, and what it means in the context of the event, will be a big determinant of whether the person experiences an increase or decrease in intrinsic motivation from the event.

Intrinsic motivation and recovery from addiction

Intrinsic motivation and recovery from addiction

Intrinsic motivation has a lot to teach us about how and why people succeed in recovery, while others don’t.

People seek treatment for addiction for many reasons, both internally and externally motivated. While external motivations may push you to seek help, such as the potential loss of a job or relationship, it’s rare that this kind of motivation can provide the kind of stable foundation needed for a lasting and flourishing recovery.

In most cases, the quality of your recovery is determined by intrinsic rewards and your desire to change your life for your own sake, rather than for the sake of anyone else.

Your intrinsic motivation doesn’t have to be fully formed or even present at all when you start your recovery. But as you progress in your journey, it’s important to devote some thought to what you hope to gain from making these changes and what you hope to discover about yourself. As you move forward, the natural satisfaction and joy that come from building a better life for yourself provide the fuel for even more positive changes.

Image of Outdoor greenyard at Tikvah Lake Recovery

We’re here to help

Tikvah Lake Recovery offers a beautiful and peaceful setting that allows you to explore the parts of yourself that have been obscured by addiction.

Our professional team is experienced in helping people rediscover what motivates them and inspires their natural joy and satisfaction so they can lay the foundation for a secure and enduring recovery from addiction.

To find out more about how we can help you or your loved one, please contact us today.


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