Intrinsic Goals Lead to Greater Subjective Well-Being

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What constitutes adequate well-being and life satisfaction? We are often in the pursuit of happiness and well-being, but the goals that we set differ according to our definitions of happiness and life satisfaction. Are all types of goals similarly effective, or are some more effective than others? What are the implications of each type of goal on our subjective well-being? The current study by Hakimi and Talepasand (2020) seeks to answer some of these questions.

The current study

Subjective well-being is an individual experience that leads to rewarding outcomes, such as a high level of life satisfaction, positive emotions and good health. It differs from person to person, as we each place different emphases on what is important to us. A popular well-being theory, the goal theory of happiness, posits that our subjective well-being is heavily influenced by our goals and the way we pursue these goals. Thus, understanding the goals that we make and their implications on our well-being helps us assess the effectiveness of our current goal approaches.

The goals that we make can be generally categorised into two categories: 1. extrinsic goals – aspirations that focus on obtaining rewards and approval from others, and includes financial success, public image, and attractiveness; 2. intrinsic goals – aspirations that focus on yourself and comes from within you, such as personal growth, meaningful relationships, health and contribution. Extrinsic goals are motivated by external influences, while intrinsic goals stem from your passion and core values. For example, studying to achieve good grades is an extrinsic goal, while studying for personal development and enrichment constitutes an intrinsic goal.

These two categories of goals roughly correspond to two types of well-being: 1. orientation towards pleasure – people who define well-being as hedonic pleasure believe that a life with happiness is a life with many positive affections and no or few negative affections; 2. orientation towards meaning and engagement – people who define well-being as an enriched mind and fulfilled self-potential aim to gain intrinsic meaning and engage purposefully with life. Our orientations toward happiness lead us to partake in behaviours and goals that are congruent with our orientations, eventually implicating our subjective well-being. Thus, the researchers in this study were interested in understanding how our orientations towards life aspirations and our resultant goals predicted our subsequent well-being.

Method

The research psychologists recruited 285 participants that answered questionnaires regarding life satisfaction, positive and negative emotions, their orientation to happiness, and their life goals.

Results

The researchers found that intrinsic goals and orientation towards meaning and engagement led to higher overall life satisfaction than extrinsic goals and orientation towards pleasure. However, extrinsic goals and orientation towards pleasure brought more negative and more positive emotions compared to intrinsic goals and orientation towards meaning.

1. Intrinsic goals lead to higher life satisfaction than extrinsic goals

Intrinsic goals were more than twice as strongly associated with well-being as compared to extrinsic goals. This signifies that our well-being encompasses more than just being happy with the material goods that we receive and the superficial accomplishments that we achieve – it is also largely dependent on developing and fulfilling our human potential through self-actualisation and growth. Intrinsic goals are inherently meaningful and rewarding, so achieving them is gratifying in itself. People who focused more on the meaning of their actions and occupied themselves with activities that developed their skills, talents and interests found greater well-being. Focusing on intrinsic goals often lead to the fulfilment of basic psychological needs such as life aspirations, moral values and self-esteem. In turn, this leads to higher well-being, as psychological needs are highly dependent on our own definitions of ourselves, and not imposed by the views of others or the society we live in. Even though we may not be the richest person on earth, or the prettiest person in the room, we can still find life satisfaction through focusing on our values, character and self-enrichment. Life may be challenging and tiring, but if we search for purpose and meaning, we can find satisfaction in the life we have lived.

2. Extrinsic goals lead to lower life satisfaction than intrinsic goals

Both intrinsic and extrinsic goals are capable of improving our well-being, but extrinsic goals lead to smaller improvements in our well-being. This study found that people who leaned towards setting extrinsic goals experienced more negative and positive affections, compared to people who set intrinsic goals. Since humans are social beings, the social approvals and praise that we gain from others when we achieve extrinsic goals are rewarding and motivating. In turn, these social rewards encourage us to pursue these extrinsic goals even further.

However, the very nature of extrinsic goals that brings us life satisfaction also causes the onset of numerous negative emotions. Since extrinsic goals often depend on the judgment of others, they are less likely to be inherently pleasing, and can lose their meaning without acceptance and recognition from others. Extrinsic goals involve constant comparison and competition with others, which puts high levels of undue stress on our already strained selves. If we fall short of our goals, we can suffer through self-comparison and disapprovals from others. When our goals are overly directed by societal pressures and expectations, we may also face conflict within ourselves if what we personally desire to strive for may differ from what society requires of us.

3. Orienting our goals towards seeking pleasure instead of finding meaning and engagement leads to lower life satisfaction

People who chased after pleasure and enjoyment reported lower life satisfaction, but ironically experienced more negative and more positive emotions. Experiences that we find enjoyable and fun are naturally joy-inducing, thus improving our state of well-being. However, pleasurable experiences are short-term, and the high we initially experience can lead to later negative emotions such as sadness and loneliness from the loss of the pleasurable activity. Sometimes, we might also find that we feel empty even after achieving the pleasure and enjoyment that we desperately pursued. Orienting ourselves to pleasure also drastically drops our level of well-being in the face of adversity, since hard times can bring a plethora of negative feelings. Orientation to pleasure seems to be beneficial to our well-being in the short run, but orienting ourselves to finding engagement and meaning is most crucial in creating long-lasting well-being.

Implications

Some people overestimate the rewards from attaining extrinsic goals, and fail to recognise the pitfalls of focusing too narrowly on extrinsic joy. If we focus too much on long term extrinsic goals, we may lose out on working on our intrinsic objectives, and end up with a lower level of well-being. Recognising the downsides of extrinsic goals does not mean that intrinsic goals do not bring us negative emotions. In the search for self-actualisation and growth, we go through countless trials and tribulations too, since self-improvement is never easy. However, the meaning that we attribute to the pursuit of our intrinsic goals give purpose to the negative emotions we might face, and supports us in persevering with strength through tough crises.

Since our goals and aspirations are often synonymous with our well-being, take this chance to assess the type of goals that you are currently setting for yourself, and your benchmarks of life satisfaction. Do you focus on external outcomes (extrinsic goals), or on the process of getting there (intrinsic goals)? How can you tweak your goals to orientate yourself more towards finding meaning and engagement?

Check out these resources to learn more about successful goal-setting:

The Key to Successful Mental Health Resolutions

The Secret to Staying Motivated

People Can Use Anxiety to Motivate Themselves, Study Finds

References

Hakimi, S., & Talepasand, S. (2020). Predictors of Subjective Wellbeing in Students of Medical Sciences: The Role of Orientation to Happiness and Life Goals. Practice in Clinical Psychology, 8(2), 109-122.

Article written with Hazel Chua. Hazel is a final year psychology undergraduate with the National University of Singapore. She aspires to be a clinical psychologist and is currently undergoing internship with ImPossible Psychological Services

Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil

About the Author

Haikal received his Master degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS), under a full scholarship awarded by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). Before entering private practice, he has gained much experience in both hospital and social services settings.

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