When it comes to motivation, literature still lacks a general concept. Despite the fact that many theories have been typed and tested over the years, we are still unsure what determines what we want. Meanwhile, research in the field of Positive Psychology has come closer to understanding whether what we want actually makes us happy. Here is how motivation indirectly influences your well being.

Understanding Motivation

Motivation – simply put – is wanting. But what determines what we want?

Some basic ideas have been substantiated over the years. For instance, it is widely accepted that our wanting can be either a trait (reoccurring pattern of desire), or a state (a desire dependant on a particular situation) (Baumeister, 2016). 

Some theories of motivation are need-based (such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory) while others are process-based (such as John Adam’s Equity Theory or Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory) (Ball, 2012).

The latest research in the field of motivation has identified four different drivers which may influence what we desire, collectively or individually: the sensual, material, emotional and spiritual (Shafi, Khemka, & Choudhury, 2016). The idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is also a common thread.

But the question still remains unanswered: why do we want what we want?

Research has seemed to place value on understanding the drivers of motivation and learning about their consequences- how motivation influences our life satisfaction.

Motivation and Flow

It is widely accepted that the motivational state affects performance. However, psychology research has found that the will to attain mastery is more efficient for performance than an actual performance goal (Utman, 1997).

This is due to the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If we concentrate on learning, we do so for the inherent satisfaction of mastery (which is considered intrinsic motivation). This leads to flexible and creative responding, hence we are better able to focus on the task at hand and improve our skills. On the other hand more extrinsically motivated behaviour such as performance goals, has been found to create a feeling of pressure and reduces engagement with the task.

The good news from the field of Positive Psychology: intrinsically motivated activities not only lead to better performance but also make us happier!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1999) refers to activities which are in themselves rewarding as “autotelic” (from the Greek words “auto” for self and “telic” for goal). The result of such activities is the experience of flow.

We can experience flow while performing a hobby such as painting or a game of basketball or during work. Fundamental to flow are two things, we need to possess the necessary skills for the task, and the task must be challenging for these skills.

Intrinsic motivation may lead to flow, which is in itself rewarding. But the best is yet to come.

Flow not only lifts the spirit momentarily, but it has also been found to build psychological capital over time, which is a major component of human growth (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Just to clarify, while time flies when you are watching television, this is not considered a flow experience as no skills are required and the activity is not challenging. Consequently you are not building psychological capital. When you make sure you find that skill which leads to an autotelic experience of flow – not only will you master it, but you will also become happier and ensure your personal growth over time.

Motivation and Success

The economic principle of utility – more equals better – is tenaciously sticking around. Accordingly, it is assumed that humans are motivated by the possibility of acquiring more goods. Hence, the more successful we are in our careers and the more we earn, the happier we are supposed to be.

However, quite to the contrary, research found that happiness often precedes success (Achor, 2011; Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2008). Happy people have found are less likely to be unemployed, are more satisfied with their jobs, and are more likely to be supported by their co-workers. This is how they are more productive and efficient.

Cabanas & Sanchez-Gonzales (2016) go so far as to claim this to be the “inversion of the pyramid of needs”. Raising happiness to the first-need category as a precondition for measures such as job satisfaction and performance. 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.

Motivation and Incentives

It may be hard to believe but some companies still use a carrot and stick approach to motivate their staff, despite the ample evidence stating that monetary rewards do not enhance intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).

Interestingly, the latest research has found that the process of how compensation is determined and communicated may indeed be a motivating factor (Olafsen, Forest, Halvari, & Deci, 2015). As it turns out, perceived fairness at work may be a better determinant of job satisfaction than the actual salary.

Furthermore, the study found a positive correlation between the need for competence, autonomy and relatedness and an employee’s intrinsic work motivation. Hence, staff need 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 at least some of their co-workers to experience job satisfaction.

Instead of offering financial rewards, organisations should strive to improve what really matters to employees in order to increase their intrinsic motivation. This is at the heart of Daniel Pink’s research, which found autonomy, mastery and purpose to be positively correlated with performance and job satisfaction (2009).

He claims that extrinsic incentives are bad drivers of motivation as they narrow focus and block creativity. They only work in situations where jobs are based on a simple set of rules and mechanical skills are required; however, with jobs requiring cognitive skills, it is intrinsic motivation which drives action.


In summary, it may still be a while until we understand why we want what we want. But 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? Share your stories with us on your best and worst ways to motivate in the comment box below.