Intrinsic Motivation: The Search for Meaning

· February 16, 2019
The search for the meaning of life sets our goals and motivations in motion. When a person knows what they're passionate about, paths will open for them.

The search for meaning is key to intrinsic motivation and personal fulfillment. Setting a goal and identifying what’s most meaningful to us creates a “yellow brick road” that guides us daily so that we don’t lose direction. This is the only way we’ll be able to bring passion and vigor to our work and create a fence to block those who would dare try to stray us away from our own path.

It’s common for psychologists to ask their patients three questions: “What defines you?”, “What are your values?”, and “What does life mean to you?” We’ve inherited these principles from Victor Frankl and his work in logotherapy, which helps us bring our motivations to light.

Today, many experts point out that the search for meaning is one of our society’s most basic needs. We’re currently experiencing an uncomfortable sense of emptiness. A few decades ago, we used religion and spirituality to try to fill the void, but today we need more.

We could say that we’ve moved away from needing to understand our origin and cosmic position. Science has given us valuable answers and we have a great deal of information within our reach. Nevertheless, among great technological advances, other anxieties arise.

“Why am I here?” or “What do I expect from myself?” are questions people tend to ask themselves. In other words, instead of asking ourselves about the meaning of life, we now question our relationship with life and ourselves.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

-Viktor Frankl-

Stairs that lead to a door in the universe.

Intrinsic motivation: A commitment to yourself

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation stems from the necessity to behave in a certain way in order to receive an external reward. Intrinsic motivation is when a person does certain things for the mere pleasure of doing them, without needing any external incentives.

A study carried out by Strathfield College shows that intrinsic motivation is regulated by a series of concrete processes. Thus, important qualities such as creativity, curiosity, reflection, a critical mind, and initiative work together to generate intrinsic motivation.

That being said, we’ve been educated under the parameters of extrinsic motivation for a large part of our lives. “If you do this, I’ll give you a good grade.” “Behave well and I’ll buy you that toy.” “If you pass your tests, I’ll let you go on a trip.” 

What’s more, our society also manipulates our behavior using a system of rewards, punishments, and positive reinforcements. Essentially, we’ve been so attentive to external gratification that we can feel lost without it. Being dependent on the external world creates internal voids and blocks initiative and the boldness to look for one’s own reward.

A man observing nature.

The search for meaning: A personal obligation

The search for meaning shapes our intrinsic motivation. Once we discover a fundamental purpose or a passion that will guide our values and determination, everything changes. But how do we do it? We’re so burdened by obligations, constraints, and distractions that it’s hard to find our purpose.

Nevertheless, there’s something that we can’t lose sight of: humans are clever and brave. We can carry out our search for meaning in any scenario and situation:

  • Speaking with someone and allowing ourselves to see other points of view.
  • Traveling.
  • Reading a book.
  • Learning something new.
  • Opening our mind to new tastes.
  • Attending a conference.
  • Playing a sport.
  • Meeting new people.

Committing to yourself

Searching for meaning implies making a commitment to yourself. For example, this could mean not putting off your own needs. It can also mean spending quality time with yourself, taking care of yourself, or finding opportunities to experience something new.

Be curious, challenge yourself, and innovate

Sometimes, we have no choice but to unlearn in order to learn again. We’ve been restrained by extrinsic motivation and the need to be validated for so long that we’ve forgotten how exciting it is to escape the cycle and challenge the world.

We have to dare to think differently, be creative, and innovate. Being bold leads to discovery and the search for meaning leads to being able to do new things and escape from routine.

In conclusion, finding a vital purpose is a personal obligation that we should all work toward. We can fill our voids with experiences and opportunities. Often, life reveals many meanings we should focus our motivation on.

  • Pattakos, Alex and Dundon, Elaine (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd ed. Oakland, Dallas: BenBella Books.