Intrinsic Rewards & the Path to Happiness

Jane McGonigal

I am reading “Reality is Broken,” by Jane McGonigal, self-proclaimed gamer for good.  McGonigal explains how well designed games actually tie into intrinsic reward structures that act as happiness drivers.

For instance, the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with games and fellow games replicate some of the same reward structures that function in real life. McGonigal calls this “autotelic” behavior – that is self-rewarding activity – not externally rewarding activity like perceived social status or material possessions.

In one study conducted at the University of Rochester, researchers tracked 150 recent college grads and monitored their goals and reported levels of happiness. They compared the rates at which the graduates achieved both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and concluded:

The attainment of extrinsic, or ‘American Dream’ goals — money, fame, and being considered physically attractive by others — does not contribute to happiness at all. In fact, they reported, far from creating well-being, achieving extrinsic rewards actually does contribute to some ‘ill-being.’ If we let our desire for more and more extrinsic rewards monopolize our time and attention, it prevents us from engaging in autotelic activities that would actually increase our happiness.

This study also found that individuals who focused on intrinsically rewarding activity, working hard to build their personal strengths and social relationships, we measurably happier over the two year period regardless of external life circumstances like salary or social status.

So what are these intrinsic rewards that McGonigal describes? She names a few:

1. Humans crave satisfying work, every single day

2. We crave the experience or the hope of being successful. 

3. We crave social connection 

4. We crave meaning – the chance to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

Keep in mind that none of the above are necessarily connected to activities that involve saving the world. Instead, they are tied to personal motivations. I believe that all humans have the right to be happy – and that “happiness” is too often tied to moralistic cultural social norms or expectations of fulfillment (i.e., stopping climate change, saving malnourished children, whatever).

If more people were empowered to follow personal intrinsic incentive structures, we would inherently have a world based on greater social connection, which (I think) would lead to greater consciousness on a personal and a global level. As a social change person, I sometimes get frustrated that righteousness misses the mark on human drivers by focusing on the external reward of perceived social status and expectation.

Imagine what we all could achieve if we all worked relentlessly at our happiness…

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