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What Is Intrinsic Motivation and How Does It Help Us?

Doing the things we love most is ultimately all the reward we need.

Key points

  • Intrinsic motivation helps us to get engaged and stay engaged.
  • We have control over our motivation.
  • Harnessing our intrinsic motivation is important—and simple.
Source: Milo Lin/Unsplash
Source: Milo Lin/Unsplash

What is it you enjoy most? Think of something that no one needs to urge you to do, remind you to do, or that you put off because you’d really rather be doing something else. For some that might be reading, doing a crossword puzzle, gardening, cooking, or a sport. Avid readers love to read for pleasure, as a way to relax. But what happens if an avid reader was paid to read? Their love for reading starts to feel like work and they don’t engage in it with the same enthusiasm. Their motivation changes from intrinsic (having an internal desire to do something) to extrinsic motivation (requiring something external such as money as motivation to do something). An activity that once was done eagerly and without prompting or urging suddenly becomes work.

Researchers Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) found this to be the case with young children. When a group of artistically-inclined children who enjoy creating art were broken into three groups—Group A told they would be rewarded for creating art, Group B who was given a reward if they created art, and Group C who was not given any reward for creating art —it revealed that those in Group B and Group C continued to create art two weeks later at the same pace they did on their own. It was only Group A, who were told they would receive a reward for creating art, who spent significantly less time than beforehand creating art. It seemed Group A lost their intrinsic motivation to do what they inherently enjoyed once an extrinsic motivator (reward) was attached to the activity.

This is no different for us as adults. Think of it this way: Would you be willing to volunteer your time to hand out food at a soup kitchen for an evening? Many people volunteer to do this and feel terrific for having done the experience. But if you ask people who hand out food at a restaurant during their work shift for pay, you’ll likely not get the same response. What is the difference between the two? Motivation. Intrinsic motivation, drives that come from within us, bring us joy and pleasure, whereas extrinsic motivation always requires an outside motivator to bring us pleasure. We have control over intrinsic motivation—we can read another book, run every day, or whatever else gets us to become productive. However, we have to wait for and depend on an outside motivation to deliver our pleasure when we rely on extrinsic motivation.

How can you harness your intrinsic motivation?

1. Volunteer. When you volunteer you are engaging in an activity for the pure joy of it. You aren’t relying on extrinsic motivators like money to get you handing out food to the hungry in a soup kitchen, reading to young children, or advocating for a cause you believe in.

2. Mentor. When you mentor, you aren’t getting paid. You are guiding and helping another person to gain the skills and knowledge you already have. Those who mentor enjoy the benefits that come from giving back without expecting pay in return. Many mentors develop long-lasting relationships with their mentees that come without any external motivators. Money would not make these relationships stronger.

3. Engage in activities just for fun. Don’t attach an external reward to the activities you enjoy. Read just for fun. Walk, hike, run just for fun. Push yourself to move ahead to reach higher goals for yourself, but don’t reward yourself with an external reinforcer for doing things you already enjoy. You’ll find yourself doing more of what you enjoy!

We all want to spend time doing the things we enjoy most. And we have control over how we engage in life. Harnessing our intrinsic motivation is the key, and it is simple. Know what you like to do without pay, a reward, or an award. Think of the things you would do if no one ever knew you even did them. Then, take the time to do them (whether reading, exercise, mentoring, or volunteering) as often as you can. You’ll find you’re more engaged in and that you expand upon the activities you love most. Why not take a chance to invest in yourself by consciously engaging in your passions?


Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), 129–137.

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