A Psychologist Discusses Why Well-Being Is Rooted In The Goals We Set For Ourselves

Prioritizing intrinsic goals over extrinsic ones significantly improves well-being.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 7, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that our well-being is the price we pay for pursuing goals that only offer external rewards.

I recently spoke to the lead author of the paper Emma Bradshaw, a motivation and well-being researcher at Australian Catholic University, Sydney, to understand how our goals impact our sense of well-being by altering our experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study the topic of goals? Could you explain intrinsic goals and extrinsic goals in layman's terms?

There is a joke within academia that people study that with which they themselves struggle, and I guess you could say that joke applies to why I became interested in the topic of goals. I spent my early twenties pursuing goals that, once accomplished, offered little enduring satisfaction or meaning. I set out to understand how I might set goals that would foster a sense of meaning and happiness.

Intrinsic and extrinsic goals represent the opposing answers to the question of how goals support wellness.

Intrinsic goals (for things like learning, making friends and building bonds with others, and helping to make the world a better place) feel good in the moment and over the long-term. It feels good to make a new friend and it feels good to build and maintain that friendship over time.

Experiences such as these contribute to our feeling connected to others, capable, and able to achieve our goals, and as if we are in the driver's seat of our own lives. In other words, they make us feel relatedness, competence, and autonomy which, Self-Determination Theory finds, are essential to human well-being.

Extrinsic aspirations (for things like earning money and being beautiful and popular) are more materialistic and, while they might feel good in the moment, are less likely to support feelings of wellness in the long-term and are less likely to support experiences of relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

While people can healthily strive for aspirations of both types it's important not to let the extrinsic outweigh the intrinsic. If intrinsic goals are the primary focus and extrinsic goals are in the background, one has sources of short- and long-term need satisfaction and wellness.

What is Self-Determination Theory? How does it relate to your research?

Self-Determination Theory is a macro theory of human motivation, wellness, and development. It comprises six mini-theories, each of which addresses things related to human striving, thriving, and growing from a slightly different perspective.

The broad theory emerged from studies of intrinsic motivation, which is the motivation to do things because they are inherently fun and enjoyable. Specifically, the research found that when people are told they'll be rewarded for an activity they previously found intrinsically motivating, they lose interest in the task.

Further research found that intrinsic motivation and other healthy forms of motivation (referred to as autonomous forms of motivation in the theory) are fundamentally underpinned by people's experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Together, autonomy, competence, and relatedness represent our basic psychological needs, the satisfaction of which has shown to be vital to optimal functioning in a variety of specific domains as well as general ones. With autonomous motivation and basic psychological needs as core foundations, the theory addresses questions related to effective relationships, healthy goal striving, productive workplace participation and management, and much more.

What was the methodology of your research? What were your most important findings?

Our research used meta-analysis, which is a technique that takes the results from previous studies and pools them to find out the strength and reliability of the effects of particular variables, as well as the extent to which the effects are different across various groups or contexts.

In our meta-analysis we pooled all studies in which intrinsic and/or extrinsic aspirations were linked to people's experiences of well-being. Across more than 90 studies including more than 70,000 people, we found that intrinsic aspirations are strongly and reliably linked to people's feelings of wellness.

However, when extrinsic aspirations are prioritized over intrinsic ones, the cost to well-being is reliably negative. The costs of focusing on extrinsic aspirations applied regardless of people's sex, country of origin, age, or socioeconomic status.

How do you explain your findings?

Our results were consistent with Self-Determination Theory, which argues that when people focus on things like earning money and being powerful and influential, opportunities to build enduring sources of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are crowded out.

Are there any cons of having only intrinsic goals?

A few studies have shown that people with intrinsic aspirations may pay a price if they are unable to meaningfully pursue them.

One study in a prison context found that inmates' intrinsic aspirations didn't link positively with their wellness which, the authors supposed, may be because opportunities for personal growth and community contribution may be limited.

Similarly, in a very poor slum in Peru, intrinsic aspirations did not relate to well-being. Possibly, even if pursuing a hobby or volunteering in the community would be fulfilling, people living under such conditions need to prioritize things like money simply to survive, and so, prioritizing intrinsic aspirations may not provide their typical benefit.

It is important to note though that both of these results were in specialized groups and small samples. It also requires replication.

What advice do you have for someone who focuses too much on extrinsic goals?

Strive for a batter balance. There's nothing wrong with having extrinsic goals, but they shouldn't be allowed to dominate your intrinsic ones. If they are, here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Reflect on your values: Consider what you value and the extent to which the goals align with those values.
  2. Align with values: If, upon reflection, you find your goals aren't aligned with what you truly value, consider setting revising them so that they are.
  3. Practice gratitude: Focus on the things in life you're most grateful for. I suspect you'll rarely find material things at the top of this list.
  4. Find balance: Try not to focus too much on one thing, make time for a variety of activities and goals to help balance your intrinsic and extrinsic goals.
  5. Seek support: You could also confide in a friend, trusted mentor, counselor, or life coach if you need more specific guidance on structuring your goals.