Health Leadership Wellness

The Pursuit of *Intrinsic* Happiness

A focus on achievement is creating extremely high levels of anxiety in today’s society. Especially at Penn, there is a lot of pressure to succeed– to earn nearly perfect grades in an impressive major, to obtain leadership roles, to land a competitive internship, to have a packed social calendar, etc. We receive positive recognition for external forms of achievement. I hear of peers getting jobs at Goldman or McKinsey far more often than I do of them meditating or achieving zen. This recognition can become unhealthy when people start constructing their own goals and basing their own self-worth solely on extrinsic forms of validation.

Recognizing the difference between extrinsically and intrinsically motivated goals is critical in achieving a state of positive mental health. The key difference between the two is that extrinsic goals come from an externally constructed sense of achievement, whereas intrinsic goals come from internally derived interests that reflect personal meaning. According to research conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania, extrinsic motivation includes the pursuit of goals for the purposes of money, social status, or physical attractiveness; whereas, intrinsic goals are motivated by activities that are inherently interesting, pleasurable, and/or meaningful.

Studies show that the exclusive pursuit of extrinsic goals in lieu of intrinsic goals ultimately contributes to negative psychological outcomes and a lack of life satisfaction. The chase after external validation is associated with greater depressive symptoms and a reliance on alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.

Additionally, highly extrinsically motivated individuals have lower quality interpersonal relationships. Some suggested explanations for this finding include that these individuals neglect their relationships to pursue their materialistic goals or that they perceive their relationships in terms of tools for their advancement. This may be an overly harsh assessment, but it is important to seek and nurture positive, genuine relationships as ends. It’s so easy to start taking relationships for granted. Grabbing meals with friends, asking them how they’re doing, and being there for them are all simple things that make a big difference.  For example, I recently heard my friend describe how she gained self-esteem by esteeming others. She got through a really rough semester by investing in her relationships.

Research also indicates that individuals who pursue purely extrinsic goals have a highly contingent and unstable sense of self-esteem. Therefore, it could be quite risky and devastating to base your worth on an extrinsically constructed goal– such as goals like becoming rich and powerful, gaining acceptance to an Ivy League school, achieving social validation by a group of people, maintaining a certain weight, climbing the corporate world for a certain position, or seeking Instagram fame and obsessing over likes and followers, etc. These goals are also very hard to control and could be unfulfilled despite your best efforts. When such goals aren’t realized, highly extrinsically motivated people experience large dips in their self-esteem.

It also seems that people with low self-esteem tend to gravitate towards extrinsic goals. According to research conducted at the University of Missouri, people who experience existential, economical, or interpersonal threats often pursue goals surrounding financial success, image, and status as quick fixes for their problems. Threats can activate a desire for security instead of self-actualization, even if the latter contributes to a lesser sense of happiness and well-being.

Alas, pursuing extrinsic goals isn’t necessarily bad. There’s nothing wrong with working hard to achieve a dream of becoming a doctor or trying to look good to feel confident. Both extrinsic and intrinsic acheivements can be valuable, but not when one is severely lacking. It’s important to maintain a constructive balance between extrinsic goals and things that make us intrinsically fulfilled and happy.

Goals aren’t inherently extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. The character of the motivation depends on the person with the goal: an intrinsic goal for one person could be extrinsic for the next. For example, there are people who would go into computer science because they sought parental approval and that was the career path their parents chose for them. Others may go into programming because it’s the most practical marriage of their interest in STEM and their desire for financial stability and career security. Still, there are some people who are genuinely passionate and interested by computer science and would code for the sake of coding, without any external compensation.  While all three cases provide valid reasons for pursuing careers in computer science, each respective case will entail varying degrees of career success, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Ultimately, critically analyzing the motivations behind your goals and learning to pursue the goals that make you intrinsically happy are very important skills to have. Perfection is a societal construct that is unattainable; whereas, finding personal fulfillment and meaning is very real.


“Examining the Pathway through Which Extrinsic and Intrinsic Aspirations Generate Stress and Subsequent Depressive Symptoms, ”

“Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving”