Psychologists describe two types of motivation:

(1) internal motivation—when we do things for the love of the game, because it is personally meaningful and reflects who we are.

(2) external motivation—when we do things in order to earn an award, for recognition or because it “looks good.”

So which is better?

Researchers conducted a study of more than 11,000 cadets entering West Point and looked at the reasons each cadet joined the Academy. Some cadets said they were driven by what researchers call “intrinsic motivation.”

For example, they found value in the process of becoming a good leader in the US army. Others cited “extrinsic motives”– their parents wanted them to go to West Point or they thought it would help them get a good job down the line. Over a nine year period the researchers found that the cadets with intrinsic motives were more likely to graduate, more likely to receive early promotion and more likely to pursue a career in the military. Their conclusion: internal motives go hand in hand with meaning and success.

Studies show that people who act on intrinsic aspirations lead happier and healthier lives. Living life according to one’s values and internal motives prevents burn out, keeps setbacks in perspective and buffers against stress during periods of transition and change.

Of course there is a great deal of overlap between external and internal motivation. A best-selling author might be passionate about writing and also enjoy the fame and fortune that accompanies his success. Problems arise when external motivation eclipses internal motivation.

As we shift from a culture of character to a culture of personality, there is an increasing emphasis on external motivation. Historian Warren Susman offers the following explanation:

Whereas once we lived among people known to us and private behavior was how we were judged, urbanization meant living among strangers.

So, what matters more—to be known widely by many or loved deeply by a few? To be known for one’s achievements or to be a good person who lives life according to one’s values?

When behavior is driven primarily by success, we risk losing perspective and missing out on what truly matters. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience describes:

…success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.

Do what you do because it is meaningful and because it matters.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. ~Gandhi