Are You Pursuing the WRONG Goals? (Intrinsic VS. Extrinsic Goals)
Unless you’re some enlightened human being, it’s fair to say that you are trying to achieve certain goals in your future.
Maybe you’re trying to get a promotion at your job or you’re looking to get a better job altogether. Maybe you’d like to start your own business. Maybe you want to lose weight or gain muscle mass. Maybe you want to travel to the Himalayas and maybe you want to just be happy.
Whatever the case, you are going after some goals – that’s human nature, we are teleological, aka goal-oriented beings.
But what if you’re going after the WRONG kinds of goals? What if you are unknowingly chasing goals that lower your performance, make you mentally unstable, cause anxiety, lead to depression, and even hinder you from ever being truly happy?
Holy shit: You don’t want that, do you?
I thought so. Don’t worry. In this article I’ll show you how to make sure you set the right type of goals – the ones that will actually make your life better and will make you happy.
Intrinsic VS. Extrinsic Goals
We distinguish between two types of goals:
Intrinsic goals: These goals are all about doing or chasing something that’s personally meaningful to you. These goals fuel your core needs and wants - who you are as a person. They pertain to your passions, interests, and core values as well as your relationships and your personal growth.
Intrinsic goals satisfy your core human needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. They include goals about relationships, personal growth, physical health, self-acceptance, and contribution.
You know a goal is intrinsic when you answer yes to one of the following questions:
- Relatedness: Is your goal about creating and strengthening relationships, or about giving to your community?
- Autonomy: Is your goal pertaining to a passion of yours? Is it a goal that truly interests and excites you? Did you choose the goal yourself? Does it reflect your own nature and core values?
- Competence: Is your goal about personal growth? Is it about getting better at something? Is it about learning new skills? Is it about learning from your experience?
Being intrinsically motivated means doing the thing for the thing itself. It’s about enjoying the doing, not just looking for the outcome.
It means NOT doing it as a means to an end, but as an end onto itself.
I’ll give you some concrete examples soon. For now, let’s look at the second kind of goal you may be setting yourself:
Extrinsic goals: These goals help you achieve something outside of yourself. They are often about obtaining other people’s validation and approval or external signs of self-worth.
They are about polishing your public image, becoming famous, getting rich, or seeking power over others.
Compared to intrinsic goals, extrinsic goals are all about the prize at the end of the journey. They are about getting to a certain outcome while completely neglecting the process to get there.
An extrinsically motivated person looks at something as a means to an end. It’s all about getting “there”.
It’s about the outcome, not the process.
Let’s look at some concrete examples to make this distinction clearer…
Examples of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals
Whenever we’re doing something, there’s an underlying reason, an underlying motive, an underlying goal for doing it.
That reason defines whether you’re intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. You’ll get what I mean immediately:
- Exercising to impress others (extrinsic)
- Exercising to feel more energized (intrinsic)
- Studying to get a good grade (extrinsic)
- Studying because the topic excites and interests you (intrinsic)
- Starting your own business to become rich (extrinsic)
- Starting your own business because you are passionate about it and want to make a positive change in the world (intrinsic)
- Getting a job promotion because you want to command other people around and make more money (extrinsic)
- Getting a job promotion because you want to help the business and enjoy taking more responsibility (intrinsic)
If you pursue actions that are about getting rich, enhancing your self-image, impressing others, or becoming famous --> then you’re chasing extrinsic goals – in other words, you’re extrinsically motivated.
If you pursue actions that are about bettering yourself, learning, improving, giving back to your community, or improving your relationships --> then you’re intrinsically motivated – in other words, you’re intrinsically motivated.
Alright then. On to the question you’ve been waiting for all along:
Which are better? Intrinsic or extrinsic goals?
Intrinsic Goals Increase Your Happiness, Self-Esteem, and Overall Well-being
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, a leading researcher in the field of goal achievement and personal success, intrinsic goals will lead to happiness and a true sense of well-being. She explains in her book Succeed:
“As I mentioned earlier, not all goals lead to lasting feelings of true satisfaction and well-being, and that’s because not all goals satisfy our needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Which ones do? In general, goals that are about making, supporting, or strengthening relationships do. So do goals that focus on personal growth, physical health, or self-acceptance – addressing your shortcomings or, if they can’t be helped, simply coming to terms with them. Goals that have to do with contributing to your community or helping others also fulfill these needs.
Clearly, she’s talking about intrinsic goals here. And according to her, these goals will make you happy.
This is supported by another authority in the field of personal motivation and goal achievement. Edward Deci writes in his book Why We Do What We Do:
“…strong aspirations for any of the intrinsic goals—meaningful relationships, personal growth, and community contributions—were positively associated with well-being. People who strongly desired to contribute to their community, for example, had more vitality and higher self-esteem. When people organize their behavior in terms of intrinsic strivings (relative to extrinsic strivings) they seem more content—they feel better about who they are and display more evidence of psychological health.”
Intrinsic goals lead to more happiness, higher self-esteem, increased levels of happiness, more vitality – basically they lead to high psychological health.
Basically, intrinsic goals are pretty awesome at making us happy and fulfilled. What about extrinsic goals?
Extrinsic Goals Are Associated With Anxiety, Depression, Narcissism, and Lower Happiness
Turns out chasing money, fame, bling, and other extrinsic goals will NOT make you happy. Here’s Heidi Grant Halvorson in Succeed:
“Here are the goals that aren’t going to help you achieve lasting well-being: becoming famous, seeking power over others, or polishing your public image. Any goal that is related to obtaining other people’s validation and approval or external signs of self-worth isn’t going to do it for you, either. Accumulating wealth for its own sake also won’t lead to real happiness (this is not to say you should care about money at all, just that being rich isn’t a sure ticket to a happy life).”
And it gets worse…
Not only do extrinsic goals not make us happy… they are actually associated with narcissism, anxiety, depression, poorer mental health in general, and even poorer social functioning.
Here’s Edward Deci again in Why We Do What We Do:
“The researchers found that if any of the three extrinsic aspirations—for money, fame, or beauty—was very high for an individual relative to the three intrinsic aspirations, the individual was also more likely to display poorer mental health. For example, having an unusually strong aspiration for material success was associated with narcissism, anxiety, depression, and poorer social functioning as rated by a trained clinical psychologist…
Whoops – sucks!
And it gets even worse…
Extrinsic Goals BLOCK You From Being Happy
If you’re all about being popular, getting rich, and becoming a “success” in the eyes of society… then you’re in for trouble.
Chasing these extrinsic goals is really quite dangerous because they can block you from ever becoming truly happy and fulfilled.
You see, these goals keep you occupied while interfering with the pursuit of intrinsic goals that would really benefit you. In other words, they keep you busy. They keep you in a mode of constantly chasing new shiny objects – clothes, cars, vacations, validation, approval, money, etc…
They keep you in a mode of “If I get _____, then I’ll be happy and satisfied.” You’re busy. Occupied. And you may even feel like you’re making progress in your life (and in a way you are).
The problem is:
There’s no end to this. There’s always more stuff. There’s always more money to be made. There’s always more bling to be bought. There’s always someone else to impress. There’s always more more more…
You look for happiness – the ultimate goal – in things outside of yourself… forgetting that true happiness can only come from within… from pursuing intrinsic and truly fulfilling goals.
And here comes the funniest part about all of this:
When you go straight for happiness and the pursuit of intrinsic goals, then “success” (money, fame, recognition) will follow as a by-product…
Intrinsic Goals Are Even More Effective At Achieving Extrinsic Goals Than Extrinsic Goals Are (What?!)
So far we’ve established that intrinsic goals are the ones that will make you truly happy. They also lead to higher self-esteem, more vitality, and an overall high psychological health.
Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are kind of the suckers here. They are associated with narcissism, anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction with life, poorer mental health in general, and also poorer social functioning. Even worse, they may block you from being happy.
And now it gets really funny…
Intrinsic goals will actually lead to MORE money, fame, power, validation, and approval than extrinsic goals.
It’s true. People who pursue intrinsic goals – people who just do stuff because they enjoy it and because it fulfills them – become more “extrinsically successful” than the people who are actually trying to become extrinsically successful.
HAH! Extrinsic goals aren’t even good at helping us achieve extrinsic goals…
Here’s a great study done at West Point that beautifully illustrates this point (as described in No Sweat:
“I’ve been fascinated to read the research that supports my observations. Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University led a study on more than 10,000 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to evaluate their professional success over a decade from the impact of having different types of motives for enlisting. Would holding both internal motivates (military service is personally meaningful to them) and external motivates (prestige, career advancement) for joining the Army be valuable career-wise, or would such motives compete over time? The long time frame allowed Wrzesniewski and her colleagues to identify which cadets became commissioned officers, which extended their officer service beyond the minimum required period, and which were selected for early career promotions.
In each case, they found that having a personally meaningful reason for being in the service predicted the most positive outcomes. But they also found that when the cadets also held external reasons for enlisting, this positive relationship was undermined.”
Okay, so they compared the performance of three different kinds of cadets:
- Cadets with intrinsic goals: “I want to serve my country.” Or “I want to test my abilities.”
- Cadets with extrinsic goals: “I want to become an officer because that’s a position of power.” Or “I want to do well because it’s prestigious.” Or “I want to do it because I can get a free scholarship.”
- Cadets with a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic goals: “I want to serve my country and I love the prestige.”
What they found is that purely intrinsically motivated cadets outperformed the purely extrinsically motivated people. AND purely intrinsically motivated people also outperformed students with both intrinsic and extrinsic goals.
In short: Going after extrinsic goals SUCKS – in pretty much every way possible.
And what a great paradox: It’s the ones who don’t care about money, fame, power, prestige… that are going to get it.
If your goal were to be successful… you’d be better off not chasing success.
I mentioned this earlier: External success is only a by-product of doing what you feel intrinsically motivated to do.
Warren Buffett, multi-billionaire and currently the 3rd richest person in the world says, “Making money isn't the backbone of our guiding purpose; making money is the by-product of our guiding purpose. If you're doing something you love, you're more likely to put your all into it, and that generally equates to making money.”
If you want to be “successful”, learn to love the doing.
Are the Most “Successful” People in the World Intrinsically or Extrinsically Motivated?
Mark Twain, one of the most accomplished writers in American history said it best:
“The law of work seems unfair, but nothing can change it; the more enjoyment you get out of your work, the more money you will make.”
And he’s not alone in saying this. Many of the most successful people of our time advise the very same thing.
Mark Cuban, self-made billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, says, “Don’t start a company unless it’s an obsession and something you love. If you have an exit strategy, it’s not an obsession.”
What about Warren Buffet? He says, “There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Find a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?”
His buddy Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the richest person in the world (!) with an estimated net worth of $77 billion, when talking about starting Microsoft with Paul Allen, “Paul and I, we never thought that we would make much money out of the thing. We just loved writing software.”
Last but not least, Steve Jobs said in his infamous Stanford University commencement speech, “You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle…”
So there you have it:
Some of the most successful people of our time – all of them intrinsically motivated in their endeavors.
The Sad Truth Behind Why We’re Chasing Extrinsic Goals in the First Place
There’s a reason why we may find ourselves chasing extrinsic goals. Heidi Grant Halvorson explains in Succeed:
“Psychologists Deci and Ryan argue that we turn to these superficial goals, these external sources of self-worth, when our needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence are thwarted again and again. This can happen when we find ourselves trapped in situations that are too controlling (robbing us of our sense of personal freedom), overchallenging (robbing us of our sense of competence), or rejecting (robbing us of our sense of relatedness). In other words, when we are under too much pressure or denied choices, when we feel we can’t do anything right, and when we are lonely and lack meaningful relationships with others, we turn to goals that aren’t very good for us as a kind of defensive strategy. “If I can’t get the love I need in my life, then I’ll become rich and famous and people will love me for that.” The irony, and tragedy, of this strategy is that the pursuit of fame, wealth, and popularity pretty much guarantees that your basic needs aren’t going to be met. These goals are lousy substitutes for the goals we really should be pursuing. They’ll keep you busy but never make you truly happy.”
When our core needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence aren’t being met… that’s when we turn to extrinsic goals.
When we feel like we can’t do anything right, when we are lonely, when we lack meaningful relationships, or when we feel like being controlled by the people and the world around us… that’s when we start chasing superficial goals – as a kind of defensive strategy.
Think about it. If all your needs were met. If you felt perfectly good about yourself and your life. If you had great relationships. If you were truly happy and fulfilled. If everything in your life was already awesome. If everything was already perfect. If you were enjoying every day of your life to the fullest…
…if all that were the case, then things like making more money or becoming famous wouldn’t even come to mind. Why would you need anything else when you’re already overflowing with love and happiness? It would be an absurd idea, wouldn’t it?
But if our needs aren’t being fully met, that’s when we start looking at things outside of ourselves to fulfill us.
That’s when we start telling ourselves that if we can just get rich, or famous, or successful… then we’ll finally be approved of, then we’ll finally feel worthy, then we’ll finally feel competent, then we’ll finally feel appreciated… once we’ve “made it” we will feel a sense of personal freedom, competence, and relatedness.
There is no such thing as “making it”. As I mentioned earlier, there’s always more money to be made, more cars to be bought, more people to impress, and more fame to be made… it never stops and it will never fulfill our core human needs and it will never make us happy.
Let’s stop chasing happiness out there in the world.
It’s time to start going straight after our needs… it’s time to start pursuing intrinsic goals… do what feels right… do what we’re passionate about… learn to enjoy the process… learn to love the journey… immerse ourselves in the doing, stop being obsessed with the outcome.
Anyway, I feel like I’m repeating myself, so let’s wrap this up…
We’ve talked about two kinds of goals or motivations: Intrinsic and Extrinsic.
Intrinsic goals are all about enjoying the journey. They are not a means to an end, but an end onto themselves. They are about going after what’s personally meaningful to you. They fuel who you are as a person and they fulfill core human needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
Extrinsic goals are simply a means to an end. They are all about achieving a certain outcome while neglecting the process. It’s about getting “there”. These goals are about polishing your public image, becoming famous, getting rich, or seeking power over others.
Research shows that intrinsic goals enhance a person’s happiness, well-being, self-esteem, psychological health, and overall “success” in life. The world’s most “successful” people in the world – such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – are intrinsically motivated.
Research also shows that extrinsic goals are associated with narcissism, anxiety, depression, poorer mental health in general, and even poorer social functioning. Even worse, chasing extrinsic goals can block people from ever becoming happy. When people chase one superficial goal after another, they never really have the time to fulfill their core human needs. And thus, they’re blocking themselves from being truly happy and fulfilled.
Bottom line: If you want to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled, forget about being a “success”, getting rich, becoming famous, or gaining a position of power.
Instead, start nourishing your core psychological needs. Take charge of your personal development to feel a sense of autonomy. Learn more about your interests and passions as a way of mastering yourself and feeling competent. Nurture your friendships and enjoy a sense of belonging and relatedness.
Above all, enjoy the journey and do stuff you enjoy.
On a Philosophical Side Note…
I’ve been reading quite a lot of books from Osho, the famous spiritual teacher from the 20st century, recently and I’ve found that his advice is very similar to what the research in this article has shown.
He’s talking about creativity here, but it applies perfectly. First, he tells us that creativity doesn’t come from a specific action, but from our state of being:
"Creativity has nothing to do with any activity in particular – with painting, poetry, dancing, singing. It has nothing to do with anything in particular.” He goes on, “Creativity is the quality that you bring to the activity you are doing. It is an attitude, an inner approach – how you look at things.”
Any and every activity can be intrinsically rewarding (aka creative). You bring that quality to the activity.
If you go for a run just for the sake of it, just because you enjoy doing it… then you’re creative… then you feel intrinsically rewarded – and then you’ll feel happy and fulfilled.
He goes on, telling us that we shouldn’t care about the fruits of our actions. Instead, we should just enjoy the doing – whatever we are currently doing.
"So if you are looking for fame and then you think you are creative – if you become famous like Picasso, then you are creative - then you will miss. Then you are, in fact, not creative at all: you are a politician, ambitious. If fame happens, good. If it doesn't happen, good. It should not be the consideration. The consideration should be that you are enjoying whatsoever you are doing. It is your love-affair.”
If fame happens, good. If it doesn’t happen, good. The consideration should be that you are enjoying whatsoever you are doing.
Our goal should be to enjoy whatever we happen to be doing right now.
If we’re doing the dishes, let’s enjoy doing the dishes. If we’re riding a bike, let’s enjoy riding the bike. If we’re waiting in a queue, let’s enjoy waiting. If we’re reading a book, let’s enjoy reading a book.
Whatever we do, let’s do the thing for the thing itself. Let’s be present while doing it. Let’s bring our full attention to it. Let’s do it with all our heart. Let’s do it with full intensity. Let’s bring all we’ve got to it.
Let’s do the thing for intrinsic reasons, not extrinsic reasons.
As we’ve learned today… this is what will make us healthy, happy, fulfilled, and ultimately even “successful”.
Thanks for Reading
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