Intrinsic Goals Lead to Greater Subjective Well-Being

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What does life satisfaction and well-being mean to you? We are often pursuing happiness and well-being, but the goals that we set for ourselves differ according to our personal definitions of life satisfaction. Are all types of goals similarly effective, or are some more effective than others in achieving life satisfaction? 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: Predicting subjective well-being through assessing life goals and orientations to happiness.

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 have different ideas on what is important to us. This leads us to a popular well-being theory, the goal theory of happiness, which suggests that our subjective well-being is largely influenced by the goals we set and the way we pursue these goals. By understanding the goals that we make and their implications on our well-being, we can assess the effectiveness of our current goals.

The goals that we make can be generally categorised into two categories – extrinsic and intrinsic goals. Extrinsic goals are goals that focus on getting approval and rewards from others. These include financial success, social image, and attractiveness. Intrinsic goals, however, are goals that focus on improving yourself and comes from within you. These goals include personal growth, developing meaningful relationships, and improving your health. Extrinsic goals are motivated by external influences, while intrinsic goals stem from your passion and core values. Two people may have the same end goal, but the reasons for their goals can be very different. For example, studying to achieve good grades is an extrinsic goal, while studying for personal development and enrichment is an intrinsic goal.

The two categories of goals roughly map onto two types of definitions of happiness - orientation towards pleasure and orientation towards meaning. People who orientate towards pleasure believe that a life with happiness is a life with many positive emotions and few negative emotions. People who orientate towards meaning define well-being as an enriched mind, and aim to fulfil their self-potential and engage purposefully with life. Our orientations toward happiness lead us to engage in behaviours and goals that align with our orientations, eventually influencing our subjective well-being. Thus, the researchers in this study were interested in understanding how our orientations towards happiness and our resulting 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 having intrinsic goals or an orientation towards meaning led to higher overall life satisfaction than having extrinsic goals or an 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 significantly more strongly linked to well-being as compared to extrinsic goals. This signals that our well-being encompasses more than just being happy with the material goods that we receive and the superficial accomplishments that we attain – 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 satisfying in itself.

People who focused more on the meanings 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 ambitions, moral values and self-esteem. In turn, this leads to higher well-being, since 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 can improve our well-being, but extrinsic goals lead to smaller improvements in our well-being. This study found that people who preferred setting extrinsic goals experienced more negative and positive emotions, 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 reason why extrinsic goals bring us life satisfaction also causes us to experience more negative emotions. Since extrinsic goals often depend on the judgement 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 differs from what society expects from us.

3. Orienting our goals towards seeking pleasure instead of finding meaning 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 that we initially experience can lead later to 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 numerous negative feelings. Orientation to pleasure seems to be beneficial to our well-being in the short run, but orienting ourselves to finding meaning is the 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 goals, and end up with a lower level of well-being. Furthermore, constantly striving to meet the expectations of others can take a toll on our own mental health. For example, you might feel emotionally and mentally tired but are forced to continue as you do not want to lose out to others. Or, you may feel down as you have not been able to gain acceptance from your friends no matter how hard you try to be like them.

In consideration of your own mental health and happiness, try looking inwards instead of outwards. Take this chance to re-evaluate your goals and behaviours, and understand what keeps you physically and mentally healthy. For behaviours that have been harmful to your mental health, consider if you truly need to keep them. If these are important behaviours, try tweaking your goals to orientate yourself more towards finding personal meaning, rather than focusing on external motivators. For example, studying hard is important, but it may be bringing you a lot of stress and hopelessness as you feel that your grades are never as good as others. Rather than abandoning your studies, try understanding why studying hard can be personally important to you and your aspirations, and focus more on improving yourself than comparing yourself to others. Remember, intrinsic goals also bring us negative emotions like extrinsic goals do, but 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 mental strength and resilience through tough crises.

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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