Post No.: 0514
People are motivated by many different things, not just money or material goods. Even if we look at money – its effects on motivation isn’t as straightforward as we may think. People don’t need to be paid as much to work if they find other motivations for working, including a sense of purpose, meaning, progress, identity, pride, reputation, socially belonging to a community, camaraderie, the challenge and achievement/mastery, autonomy, creation and ownership, being pro-social and helping or making a positive difference to the world. (Penalties, peer pressures and following the crowd can also motivate people to a certain degree.) Simply having our work acknowledged and appreciated can be motivating – the opposite is extremely demotivating. So all these fluffy factors need to be considered to effectively and successfully motivate people. Woof!
Out of that list – a sense of purpose, meaning and a sense of progress are probably the most powerful motivators. The feeling that a task is going nowhere or is for no ultimate reason (a ‘Sisyphean condition’ i.e. an endless, futile cycle of going nowhere) damages motivation regardless of other factors of motivation, including intrinsic enjoyment or the size of pay.
Perceiving a sense of meaningful progress is incredibly motivating regarding any task or target we set. We like to feel like we’re making a difference. So acknowledge, write in a journal or celebrate any small as well as big wins, any step forwards or any meaningful task completed. If it won’t clutter your workspace or distract you – leave any completed jobs on view so that you can see the ‘jobs completed’ pile build up as the day goes by. Pause for a moment after each completed task to think about what you’ve achieved, rather than immediately jump onto the next task or dwell on that mountain of work you’ve still to do or what didn’t work out. If you’re a manager, express to your team how valuable their work is and how it contributes to the bigger picture. If the cancellation of a project is unavoidable then try to still link the effort spent to the bigger picture, even if it costs a little bit more time and money, because the far worse outcome is a deflated motivation for new projects.
In experiments, higher monetary incentives fail to achieve higher performances for anything other than purely mechanistic tasks. So those who receive more money as an incentive can perform worse than those who receive less for doing tasks that involve creativity, for instance. In a way, although there are exceptions, money is what we give to people to do things that they wouldn’t normally wish to do – otherwise they’d simply do it as a hobby or for pleasure!
For simple tasks in a production-line environment, a workforce is more efficient if it is full of specialised people. But with more complex tasks, productivity is improved when people find meaning in the work and are more connected to the output (e.g. the positive effect their work has on their end customers). Making these tasks more meaningful will therefore improve intrinsic motivation, whereas ‘reward substitution’ (e.g. getting paid after doing something unpleasant) may crowd-out any intrinsic motivation. And because modern knowledge-based work is much harder to supervise than production-line work – we need to help workers find meaning in their work in order to optimally motivate them to work without constant supervision.
Purpose is key to intrinsic motivation because it’s about that personal yet bigger picture. We don’t just have or need purpose in our work – we can also have or need different purposes for different parts of our lives; or we might have a unified and coherent one for our life overall. Finding one’s sense of purpose in life often just comes organically – perhaps because of a personal experience of hardship, an illness or an injustice that one wants to see addressed. It might first come as we find our identity in our youth and start to speak out and act for causes that we believe in.
Sometimes it comes after direct contemplation – after you visualise your ideal future world. What do you value? What do you care about? What are you good at/your strengths? What do you enjoy? Who inspires you? It might help to think about what you’ll regret not doing, especially regarding an experience. We typically need to risk losing for a chance of winning and feeling a sense of tremendous achievement and joy. Think about your legacy – what would be said in your eulogy? How would you like people to remember you? This makes you focus on your long-term goals and tells you how you are progressing towards them. Our purpose and goals contribute to our personal life narratives (read Post No.: 0440 for more about this).
Your purpose can naturally change across your lifetime, whether due to the changing responsibilities and priorities you face as you age, or the changing opportunities and interests you cultivate or stumble across. Like happiness – purpose is more a journey rather than a destination.
Many people worry about entering their middle age but it’s best to accept or even embrace it, and be positive about it, because you can still learn and do new things and intellectually improve, and realise that you still have a lot to offer. You can still have monumental purpose and goals to strive for!
What affects our career choices are the hopes of making a great contribution to our chosen field, the degree of specificity in our own ideal self or personal vision, and having the right relationships/connections. As people go through life, many go through roughly 7-year cycles of excitement and boredom hence have a rhythm to their career cycles too. It’s important not to repress these desires for renewed excitement in one’s life because one might regret it.
Many people experience a mid-life crisis. This is when they start to question where their life is at and where it’s going, regarding their career, as a parent, their satisfaction with their partner, their body, level of adventure, spirituality, purpose, significance or whatever personally matters – and if their expectations of where they thought they’d be in life by this stage doesn’t match the reality in a disappointing way then they could experience a crisis. At the extreme, this could explain why many drug abuses and suicides are committed by people around the age of 40-50?
But this mid-life moment of self-reflection can be a positive thing if it leads us to take positive actions, hence perhaps buying that sports car or motorbike is better than alcohol abuse; although even better would be things like learning new skills or setting more meaningful, eudaimonic goals like spending more time with friends or participating in clubs in the community. This is a great time to (re)discover your purpose. The community can also play its part by guaranteeing access to adequate healthcare and making use of people who are ‘past their prime’ rather than ditching them before they’ve even retired. Also, for whatever explanation, it’s good to know that this mid-life dip tends to reverse once people grow a little older!
Elderly people tend to be generally happier than younger people partly because they react less strongly to negative messages. This might perhaps be because the longer one thinks one has left to live, the more important it is to listen to negative messages and try to learn from them? (People of all ages tend to react to positive messages similarly strongly though.)
People over 70 years old tend to be more comfortable with themselves, less bothered about what others think about them, and therefore more honest (similar to young children under 7 years old when they speak their minds with relatively little self-consciousness!) They also tend to be happier and more grateful – well I suppose reaching an old age logically means one didn’t die young – although there are still some grumpy old people! You could bemoan your age after 10 more years of your life have passed – or you could be happy that you’ve made another 10 years of life because not everyone did or will. Factors like feeling settled or bodily frailty can affect our happiness of course. Overall, globally, people on average tend to feel happier after the age of 50 then peak when in their 80s.
Now would it be better to grow old and develop dementia or to die young without dementia? Whatever you think – do understand that reaching a particular old age and cognitive decline or memory decay is not inevitable. Ways to keep healthy and happy as we age include being open and curious to new experiences, maintaining our social affiliations with others (especially with young people), and being conscientious, particularly when it comes to our health, such as regarding our diet, sleep and – very importantly – keeping up some form of regular physical activity until we can no longer do so. We should keep moving until we can’t move anymore, rather than stop moving until we can’t move anymore i.e. we shouldn’t make ourselves prematurely infirm by prematurely becoming too sedentary.
‘Retirement is a killer’ may be obvious in the sense that generally only old people retire and old people are more likely to die than young people, all else being equal; and even if certain people retire young, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation because people may retire young because of illness, and it’s really this illness that unfortunately shortens their lives. But retirement is a killer in the sense that ‘if you don’t use it then you’ll lose it’, which means your body and your brain here.
So we still need purpose to live happily at this age – we don’t need to formally go to work but we still need motivating reasons to get up every day and goals to still reach for, with some responsibilities towards others and people depending on us, in order to stay vital and feeling useful. Elderly people who regularly interact with young children can feel younger, physically fitter and less depressed. If you want to stay feeling young then continue to do what young people do, such as keep active!
Purpose must therefore be maintained even after we retire from formal work. A common purpose for many grandparents around the world is looking after grandchildren. So it’s not retirement per se that kills but how you spend it. You can still work if you want to, perhaps part-time, even while you’re collecting your pension, and this work can (hopefully) be more focused on something that’s personally meaningful rather than for the need for money. You won’t likely be able to beat your personal bests when doing the things you did when younger but if you start new interests and hobbies, new exercises and challenges that you’ve never tried before, then you can try to beat the new targets you set from this point onwards. You’ll not have attempted everything in the world so there’ll always be scope for growth and setting some personal bests!
One caveat though is that ambitions or future goals – whatever one’s age – can sometimes lead us to neglect appreciating moments in the present, so we mustn’t forget about the present too. We don’t have to fill every moment in our lives with productivity or side hustles.
Woof. All in all – although the details can change as we go through life – having a sense of higher purpose, meaning and feeling a constant sense of progress or growth are crucial for our well-being and longevity. They don’t have to be grand ambitions at all, or follow what other people have or want – they just have to be personally meaningful for you. Maybe you’d like to tell us, by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below, what gets you up in the mornings? For me right now it’s obviously this blog… and I’m still trying to beat Fluffystealthkitten’s years-old high scores on Guitar Hero!