Category: Happiness, meaningfulness and good living

How to deal with failure effectively: Should you punish or forgive yourself?

The Problem: When we fail, we often punish ourselves for our slacking. But is this effective?
What Science Says: Actually, forgiving ourselves might be the strategy that leads into better results in the future.
Take-Home Message: The 3 key elements for dealing effectively with failure.

When we fail at something, the natural reaction for most of us is to punish ourselves for our slacking. When we drink too many beers, when we smoke that cigar we shouldn’t have smoked, when we eat that greasy pizza or fail to meet that deadline, we get angry at ourselves: You lazy slacker, again you failed! You will never succeed at anything! These accusations fill our minds, and often we start designing some punishments for ourselves, in order to learn a lesson.

The question to ask: Is this really an effective way to deal with failure? Does punishing ourselves contribute to us not making the same mistake in the future?

Ask professor Michael Wohl from Carleton University, and he can tell you that forgiving might actually be a more successful strategy to deal with many self-regulation failures.

For example, procrastinating before the exam – followed by last night’s cramming – is an all too common phenomenon among college students. But let’s say that you procrastinated before the mid-term exam and you are not happy with the results. The final exam is in a few months: How to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen there?

The research team led by Wohl got into contact with students in this situation and found out that some students were more forgiving towards themselves for slacking, while others were more strict and punishing. A few months went by and it was time for the final exam. Guess which group got better results, self-forgiving or self-punishing students?

It turned out that the self-punishing group procrastinated as much in the final exam as they did in the mid-term, and this was reflected in their final results. Critical self-punishing thus failed as a method for improving their future performance. However, self-forgiving students were not only more studious before the exam, they also got better grades. So unlike common wisdom has it, self-forgiving might be a more effective strategy than self-criticism for making sure that in the future you win your willpower battles.

However, don’t take this as a license to forgive yourself for everything. Too much forgiving is not good, either. Especially when it comes to chronic harmful behavior, like smoking or gambling addictions, being too permissive toward oneself might actually lead oneself to be less prone to solve the problem. Smokers trying to quit might use self-forgiveness to justify their smoking, in order to be able to smoke one more cigar – again.

More important than forgiving or punishing might be that one accepts responsibility for what has happened. Self-accusation often puts one in a defensive and negative mood, where one is unable to reflect on the situation and thus fails to learn from it. This is probably the reason why self-critical students made the same mistake in the final exam that they did in the mid-term. By focusing on the punishment, they forgot to have a general look at what were the factors that actually contributed to procrastination happening in the first place. On the other hand, a chronic smoker might use forgiveness to allow oneself not to think about what happened and why, and thus forgiveness might contribute to the continuation of the problem.

So when you face a self-control failure, the most important thing is to accept responsibility for what happened, and have a realistic look at the situation that caused it. What situational factors were at play? What could I have done differently? It is this reflection and a commitment to change that are the real drivers of change for the better. By focusing on self-punishment, you easily fail to have this essential reflection. But self-forgiveness alone is not enough, either. However, when
(1) forgiveness is combined with
(2) a commitment to change and
(3) a plan for change,
this trio might work magic in making you less prone to repeat your mistake.

This post was originally published in Fulfillment Daily.

Revealed By Science: The 4 Elements Of Holy Grail That Jay-Z And Justin Timberlake Are Searching After

In radio right now: “And baby, it’s amazing I’m in this maze with you. I just can’t crack your code.” Don’t worry, Mr. Timberlake, I am here to crack the code for you. You just need to do what MC Hammer did: become a bit more geeky!

You curse my name
In spite to put me to shame
But I still don’t know why
Why I love it so much?

We’ve been told by Mr. Jay (Z) that in the lyrics of the song Holy Grail, Mr. Timber (lake) is talking about his love/hate affair with fame. In the same song, Mr. Jay himself complains how he is “caught up in all these lights and cameras” and ready to “f**k the fame.”

Both of them seem to be confused: How did they end up in this horrific maze of fame? And they still don’t know why they love it so much, even when it is sometimes so painful. Fortunately, the right answers are out there. They have just been hiding in the laboratories of mischievous – and less famous – scientists. So what can they tell to Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber about sustainable happiness?

Consider this: A few psychologists I know from University of Rochester (341 miles from Brooklyn) asked students graduating from college what they want to get in life. Some of the students had cozy dreams about satisfying close relationships, personal growth and serving the community. Other’s were all bling-bling, and wanted the infamous trio of money, fame, and image. And alas: one year later it turned out that both groups had taken some successful steps towards their goals: inner growth people had experienced inner growth, while fame people were a bit more famous. This seems to proof the theorem set forth by professor Eminem from 8 Mile Road University in his highly cited paper Be Careful What you Wish for:

So be careful what you wish for, cause you just might get it
And if you get it then you just might not know what to do with
Cause it might just come back on you ten-fold.

As professor Eminem argues, we should be very careful about our dreams. The truth is out there: All goals are not created equal. The research shows that achieving some goals produces well-being, while achievement of other goals produces – well – ill-being.

What are then the sources of sustainable happiness? What are the goals that produce true happiness?

There are four of them:
1) Having a sense of freedom and autonomy in one’s life
2) Feeling competent at what one is doing
3) Having satisfying close relationships
4) Being able to contribute to the society

The key problem with too much fame is that while 2 & 4 might be satisfied, too much fame can completely trump 1 and 3.

Let’s take Mr. Jay as an example:

1) Feeling Free: He can buy an island for his girlfriend as a birthday present, but at the same time: “can’t even take my daughter for a walk, see ‘em by the corner store.” He has certain freedoms others can just dream about, but at the same time he has been deprived of many freedoms that are self-evident for ordinary people: Being able to visit a corner-store, walk around freely on streets of Brooklyn – or any other neighborhood on this planet.

2) Feeling Competent: Hats off! Mr. Jay is ambitious, talented, and disciplined. He is the “post-millennial embodiment of the American Dream”, who won the game of making money out of hip hop. As regards competence, he is way up there!

3) Feeling Related: Having a sympathetic wife and a lovely daughter is great. But given that both he and his wife are quite dedicated to their careers, they might not have as much quality time together as your average Joneses. In addition, Mr. Jay complains how he is surrounded by pigeons. I am not an ornithologist, but Mr. Jay seems to have some knowledge about the behavior of pigeons: “But soon as all the money blows, all the pigeons take flight.” Finding friends when everybody around you is a pigeon? Not cool.

4) Contributing: A bit mixed really. Mr. Jay gives to charities, serves as a role model, and organizes cool things like Made in America festival. Harry Belafonte (the Banana Boat Song guy), however, criticizes him for turning his back on social responsibility. He thinks that Mr. Jay could do so much more with his high profile status and a net worth of 450 millions. In that sense, Mr. Belafonte feels that Bruce Springsteen is more black than Mr. Jay.

The point being: The fame itself doesn’t make anyone happy or unhappy. As regards happiness, fame helps only to the extent to which it helps to fulfill the four needs of sustainable happiness. And while having no money hurts, having too much money and fame can hurt too. It’s of course nice that if one “just want a Picasso in my casa, no, my castle”, one can buy it. But it is not nice when living a normal life becomes impossible:

“I feel like I’m cornered off enough is enough, I’m calling this off
Who the fuck I’m kidding though, I’m getting high, sitting low
Sliding by in that big body, curtains all in my window
This fame hurt but this chain works.”

Ok, now we know why Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber both love and hate fame at the same time. But where to go from here? What should they do to break loose and find that holy grail of sustainable happiness?

Mr. Jay asks us to look at “what that s**t did to Hammer”. So let’s look at what happened to MC Hammer!

For those born in the ’90s, MC Hammer was a guy who twenty years ago instructed us to not “Touch This”, leaving us wondering what exactly it is we can’t touch (and is it something we would like to touch in the first place?) He was huge in 1990! And surely, Mr. Hammer went through the usual cycle: huge fame, huge money, huge mansion in Fremont, California. And then the backlash: bankruptcy, loosing the mansion, out of fashion.

But what does Mr. Hammer do now?

It seems that he is living the good life with his wife and six kids while putting in some occasional missionary work for the local church. As for work, he is investing in and consulting tech companies, calling himself a “super-geek.” And he is right: he is definitely less cool when he talks about the user interfaces of search engines at Web 2.0 Summit than when he rapped about 2 Legit 2 Quit wearing Ray-Bans.

In a nutshell, Mr. Hammer in 2013 is less cool, less famous, but more happy.

Let’s break his life into the four building blocks of sustainable happiness to see how he has found his own holy grail of sustainable happiness:

1) Feeling free: Less fame means more freedom to walk on the streets and have the benefits of normal life that superstars are deprived off. Still, he is so well off that he can do most of the things he likes, like traveling or having a nice house.

2) Feeling competent: He can still do it if he wants, for example mashing it up with PSY at the American Music Awards. And he is getting more competent in the geeky stuff as well.

3) Feeling related: Having been together with his wife for over 25 years, and having six children certainly is a good start in having satisfying close relationships in one’s life. Also in his work life he seems to be surrounded with fellow geeks he loves to hang out with.

4) Contributing: His work at the church as well as the way he helps tech startups both seem to give him a strong sense of being able to contribute towards the society and other people.

That’s sustainable happiness, isn’t it! To get there, Mr. Hammer obviously needed to “Stop” before the new “Hammertime” started. He did that, found what is truly valuable in life, and is now living a more peaceful, less famous, but much happier life.

So don’t worry Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber, there is also hope for you. Just become a geek – less cool, more happy!

This story was originally posted on the site for my latest book Willpower: The Owner’s Manual -blog.In radio right now: “And baby, it’s amazing I’m in this maze with you. I just can’t crack your code.” Don’t worry, Mr. Timberlake, I am here to crack the code for you. You just need to do what MC Hammer did: become a bit more geeky!

You curse my name
In spite to put me to shame
But I still don’t know why
Why I love it so much?

We’ve been told by Mr. Jay (Z) that in the lyrics of the song Holy Grail, Mr. Timber (lake) is talking about his love/hate affair with fame. In the same song, Mr. Jay himself complains how he is “caught up in all these lights and cameras” and ready to “f**k the fame.”

Both of them seem to be confused: How did they end up in this horrific maze of fame? And they still don’t know why they love it so much, even when it is sometimes so painful. Fortunately, the right answers are out there. They have just been hiding in the laboratories of mischievous – and less famous – scientists. So what can they tell to Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber about sustainable happiness?

Consider this: A few psychologists I know from University of Rochester (341 miles from Brooklyn) asked students graduating from college what they want to get in life. Some of the students had cozy dreams about satisfying close relationships, personal growth and serving the community. Other’s were all bling-bling, and wanted the infamous trio of money, fame, and image. And alas: one year later it turned out that both groups had taken some successful steps towards their goals: inner growth people had experienced inner growth, while fame people were a bit more famous. This seems to proof the theorem set forth by professor Eminem from 8 Mile Road University in his highly cited paper Be Careful What you Wish for:

So be careful what you wish for, cause you just might get it
And if you get it then you just might not know what to do with
Cause it might just come back on you ten-fold.

As professor Eminem argues, we should be very careful about our dreams. The truth is out there: All goals are not created equal. The research shows that achieving some goals produces well-being, while achievement of other goals produces – well – ill-being.

What are then the sources of sustainable happiness? What are the goals that produce true happiness?

There are four of them:
1) Having a sense of freedom and autonomy in one’s life
2) Feeling competent at what one is doing
3) Having satisfying close relationships
4) Being able to contribute to the society

The key problem with too much fame is that while 2 & 4 might be satisfied, too much fame can completely trump 1 and 3.

Let’s take Mr. Jay as an example:

1) Feeling Free: He can buy an island for his girlfriend as a birthday present, but at the same time: “can’t even take my daughter for a walk, see ‘em by the corner store.” He has certain freedoms others can just dream about, but at the same time he has been deprived of many freedoms that are self-evident for ordinary people: Being able to visit a corner-store, walk around freely on streets of Brooklyn – or any other neighborhood on this planet.

2) Feeling Competent: Hats off! Mr. Jay is ambitious, talented, and disciplined. He is the “post-millennial embodiment of the American Dream”, who won the game of making money out of hip hop. As regards competence, he is way up there!

3) Feeling Related: Having a sympathetic wife and a lovely daughter is great. But given that both he and his wife are quite dedicated to their careers, they might not have as much quality time together as your average Joneses. In addition, Mr. Jay complains how he is surrounded by pigeons. I am not an ornithologist, but Mr. Jay seems to have some knowledge about the behavior of pigeons: “But soon as all the money blows, all the pigeons take flight.” Finding friends when everybody around you is a pigeon? Not cool.

4) Contributing: A bit mixed really. Mr. Jay gives to charities, serves as a role model, and organizes cool things like Made in America festival. Harry Belafonte (the Banana Boat Song guy), however, criticizes him for turning his back on social responsibility. He thinks that Mr. Jay could do so much more with his high profile status and a net worth of 450 millions. In that sense, Mr. Belafonte feels that Bruce Springsteen is more black than Mr. Jay.

The point being: The fame itself doesn’t make anyone happy or unhappy. As regards happiness, fame helps only to the extent to which it helps to fulfill the four needs of sustainable happiness. And while having no money hurts, having too much money and fame can hurt too. It’s of course nice that if one “just want a Picasso in my casa, no, my castle”, one can buy it. But it is not nice when living a normal life becomes impossible:

“I feel like I’m cornered off enough is enough, I’m calling this off
Who the fuck I’m kidding though, I’m getting high, sitting low
Sliding by in that big body, curtains all in my window
This fame hurt but this chain works.”

Ok, now we know why Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber both love and hate fame at the same time. But where to go from here? What should they do to break loose and find that holy grail of sustainable happiness?

Mr. Jay asks us to look at “what that s**t did to Hammer”. So let’s look at what happened to MC Hammer!

For those born in the ’90s, MC Hammer was a guy who twenty years ago instructed us to not “Touch This”, leaving us wondering what exactly it is we can’t touch (and is it something we would like to touch in the first place?) He was huge in 1990! And surely, Mr. Hammer went through the usual cycle: huge fame, huge money, huge mansion in Fremont, California. And then the backlash: bankruptcy, loosing the mansion, out of fashion.

But what does Mr. Hammer do now?

It seems that he is living the good life with his wife and six kids while putting in some occasional missionary work for the local church. As for work, he is investing in and consulting tech companies, calling himself a “super-geek.” And he is right: he is definitely less cool when he talks about the user interfaces of search engines at Web 2.0 Summit than when he rapped about 2 Legit 2 Quit wearing Ray-Bans.

In a nutshell, Mr. Hammer in 2013 is less cool, less famous, but more happy.

Let’s break his life into the four building blocks of sustainable happiness to see how he has found his own holy grail of sustainable happiness:

1) Feeling free: Less fame means more freedom to walk on the streets and have the benefits of normal life that superstars are deprived off. Still, he is so well off that he can do most of the things he likes, like traveling or having a nice house.

2) Feeling competent: He can still do it if he wants, for example mashing it up with PSY at the American Music Awards. And he is getting more competent in the geeky stuff as well.

3) Feeling related: Having been together with his wife for over 25 years, and having six children certainly is a good start in having satisfying close relationships in one’s life. Also in his work life he seems to be surrounded with fellow geeks he loves to hang out with.

4) Contributing: His work at the church as well as the way he helps tech startups both seem to give him a strong sense of being able to contribute towards the society and other people.

That’s sustainable happiness, isn’t it! To get there, Mr. Hammer obviously needed to “Stop” before the new “Hammertime” started. He did that, found what is truly valuable in life, and is now living a more peaceful, less famous, but much happier life.

So don’t worry Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber, there is also hope for you. Just become a geek – less cool, more happy!

This story was originally posted on the site for my latest book

Willpower: The Owner’s Manual

Why is Barack Obama only wearing gray or blue suits? Why did Stanley, while searching for Doctor Livingstone in the darkest Africa and haunted by malaria, mosquitoes, diseases, and beasts, still insist on shaving every single morning? Both of them had intuitively taken into use one of the tools to improve willpower that the latest science has confirmed.

I’ve written a book. The name is Willpower: The Owner’s Manual – 12 Tools for Doing the Right Thing. The book has two functions.

First, based on the recent advances in the science of willpower, it will tell you what willpower is. This is essential because our current mistaken assumptions about willpower are often the biggest obstacles for its effective utilization.

Second, the book will offer twelve tools that will make sure that you are able to get the most out of this resource and be able to do the right thing, in the face of any challenge. The book will teach you how to increase your willpower, how to have the most supporting attitudes, how to train your habitual self into doing the right thing automatically, and how to design your environment so that it gives you optimal support in reaching your targets.

The book combines the latest scientific findings with stories and personal experiences of the author to provide a highly accessible, yet scientifically accurate, take on willpower – the most important tool you have for doing the right thing.

For more info, check out the site for the book.
Get the book directly from Amazon.

”I highly recommend that you not only read this book but study it and keep it handy for follow ups and reminders to keep striving forward to a more successful life and better choices.” – John Wilder, marriage coach

Philosophy simplified – Explaining what philosophy is the ’up-goer five’ way

Ever tried to explain what you do for a living for a four-year-old? I can tell you that ”Daddy is a philosopher” is not the most informative answer. Inspired by a xkcd comic, there has been a recent trend of trying to explain scientific disciplines and other complicated stuff like paleomagnetism by using only the 1000 most common words of English language. In this spirit, here is my take on philosophy, using only these thousand words and using altogether only 270 words:

How should I live? What should I do in life? These are questions we all have to answer. Because we all have to live some way or the other. Big and small questions about the right way of doing things come up all the time. And our life as a whole is always our own attempt to answer the question about a good way of living.

Still many people don’t think much about these questions. They just live like they are supposed to live. They live like they believe other people would want them to live. And believe in things that people around them believe in. So they let other people decide about their lives.

But there are some people who feel that they must try to answer these questions. Who stop and ask: Should I really believe this? Should I really live like this? And they will not go on, before they know the answer. They are willing to go deeper and deeper and spend a lot of time with these questions. In fact, they can spend their whole life trying to figure out something other people think is not interesting at all.

In the best case, these people can find new answers to life’s big questions. Answers that open people’s eyes and change the way they look at their lives. This could change the way people are living. In the best case, these answers can help all of us to live our lives better.

This is what I do for work. I try to find new ways of thinking that will make people live a better life.

Ever tried to explain what you do for a living for a four-year-old? I can tell you that ”Daddy is a philosopher” is not the most informative answer. Inspired by a xkcd comic, there has been a recent trend of trying to explain scientific disciplines and other complicated stuff like paleomagnetism by using only the 1000 most common words of English language. In this spirit, here is my take on philosophy, using only these thousand words and using altogether only 270 words:

How should I live? What should I do in life? These are questions we all have to answer. Because we all have to live some way or the other. Big and small questions about the right way of doing things come up all the time. And our life as a whole is always our own attempt to answer the question about a good way of living.

Still many people don’t think much about these questions. They just live like they are supposed to live. They live like they believe other people would want them to live. And believe in things that people around them believe in. So they let other people decide about their lives.

But there are some people who feel that they must try to answer these questions. Who stop and ask: Should I really believe this? Should I really live like this? And they will not go on, before they know the answer. They are willing to go deeper and deeper and spend a lot of time with these questions. In fact, they can spend their whole life trying to figure out something other people think is not interesting at all.

In the best case, these people can find new answers to life’s big questions. Answers that open people’s eyes and change the way they look at their lives. This could change the way people are living. In the best case, these answers can help all of us to live our lives better.

This is what I do for work. I try to find new ways of thinking that will make people live a better life.

The four ultimate elements of motivation: How to get the best out of you and others? (And how robots will save the world)

What motivates you? Ultimately. We are motivated by many issues: by fame, friendship, food, and football. But what is the structure of human motivation in general? What are the basic elements of the things that make us move? Understanding what pulls your strings makes you more capable of manipulating them yourself, being in charge of your own life! As a leader, understanding them helps you get the most out of the people around you.

Motivation is about how to move oneself and others to act. There is basically two forms of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation means being motivated, not by the activity itself, but by the things it brings: getting rewards, escaping punishments, getting good grades. Often it is about the fear that otherwise others will not like me – that the group will abandon me. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is about being motivated by the activity itself. The motivation flows from inwards, from one’s values, natural curiosity, or one’s passions. Here I will concentrate on the elements of intrinsic motivation. Why? Because if you want to get the most out of yourself and others, if you want to make yourself and others thrive and flourish, then what you want is intrinsic motivation.

The leading psychological theory about intrinsic motivation proposes that there are essentially three elements that give rise to it. In their self-determination theory, Professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci propose that human motivation can be approached in the same way that the motivation of any self-determined being can be approached. And they see that certain elements motivate human beings in all contexts: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness. Sense of being the author of one’s own life is strengthened when the person feels that the activity he or she is engaged with is equipped with one or more of them. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Autonomy. The best way to ruin someone’s inner motivation is to start controlling it. Decades of research has shown that external rewards and punishments decreases the person’s intrinsic motivation. This is true in work environments where controlling managers produce subordinates who no longer feel that they have the ownership over their own work projects. It is true in schools where controlling teachers are able to suck the childrens’ natural curiosity and willingness to learn out of the learning experience. And it is true in one’s personal life where it has been shown that a wide range of life goals are better achieved as long as one feels one has autonomy in deciding how to achieve them.

Competence Another truth about human motivation is that we like to do things that we perform well. Sense of competence is a powerful motivator: when we feel that we are at the top of our game we rarely need any other motivators to continue. In fact, in these situations the activity flows so strongly and naturally that we become so absorbed in it that the question of motives doesn’t even arise. It is thus important to make sure one’s activities are designed so that they give enough challenge. Too little challenge and we get bored, too much challenge and we get anxious. But with the right amount of challenge, we feel that we are able to use the full range of our talent. And that is an energizing feeling.

Relatedness Ever since the times in the savannah, most of human accomplishments have been achieved in groups. Be it the hunting down of a mammoth, the farming of the family fields, or the building of a successful dot.com enterprise, we perform best as part of a team. Accordingly, the sense of relatedness is an important motivator. As human beings, we have a basic need to belong, to be a part of a bigger group in which we feel recognized and valued. That’s why being part of a group with a common goal is also a powerful motivator. Excitement is contagious and relatedness increases vitality.

But what if there is a fourth basic form of motivation that also makes us tick? What if a tendency to care about the well-being of others is also coded into our basic DNA? As social animals we are not only interested to make sure that others care about us. We also instinctively care about the others. Thus, we feel a sense of accomplishment and meaningfulness when we are able to engage in activities that contribute to the well-being of other people. During the last decade, more and more successful entrepreneurs have noticed that even though their work is fulfilling in all three dimensions above, they still lack something. And that something is the sense of making something valuable, contributing to the making of a better world for all of us. Therefore it can be suggested that there is a fourth basic human need: The willingness to make a meaningful contribution.

Take Zen Robotics as an example. The founders are all serial entrepreneurs with a number of success stories behind them. Their expertise and sense of excitement is about robots. They knew that with their experience, they could accomplish something with robots that others could only dream about. But this time they wanted to accomplish something that would not only be cool and sell well, but something that would make the world a better place. The only question was, where to find valuable enough target for their enthusiasm? Their answer was clean technology. As they themselves put it: ”The solution to the world’s waste problem is called ZenRobotics Recycler”.

These guys seem to know their intrinsic motivation. As entrepreneurs they have the freedom to do things their own way; in other words, they have found autonomy. At the same time they have found a highly challenging task that makes sure they are using their full competence. Their team spirit is great, thus they have a strong sense of relatedness within their company. And through their work they aim to contribute to solving an alarming global problem. Intrinsic motivation? These guys have it.

Do you as a leader want to get the most out of your employees? Do you as a teacher want to get the most out of your students? Do you as a parent want to make sure that your children will live a fulfilling life? If so, make sure that you aren’t suppressing them through control or depleting their energy through bad social relations. Instead, give them room for autonomy, support their growth in competence – and make sure that they feel that they are contributing towards something meaningful. Thus you wake up engagement and passion. That is the way to results that really matter!What motivates you? Ultimately. We are motivated by many issues: by fame, friendship, food, and football. But what is the structure of human motivation in general? What are the basic elements of the things that make us move? Understanding what pulls your strings makes you more capable of manipulating them yourself, being in charge of your own life! As a leader, understanding them helps you get the most out of the people around you.

Motivation is about how to move oneself and others to act. There is basically two forms of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation means being motivated, not by the activity itself, but by the things it brings: getting rewards, escaping punishments, getting good grades. Often it is about the fear that otherwise others will not like me – that the group will abandon me. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is about being motivated by the activity itself. The motivation flows from inwards, from one’s values, natural curiosity, or one’s passions. Here I will concentrate on the elements of intrinsic motivation. Why? Because if you want to get the most out of yourself and others, if you want to make yourself and others thrive and flourish, then what you want is intrinsic motivation.

The leading psychological theory about intrinsic motivation proposes that there are essentially three elements that give rise to it. In their self-determination theory, Professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci propose that human motivation can be approached in the same way that the motivation of any self-determined being can be approached. And they see that certain elements motivate human beings in all contexts: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness. Sense of being the author of one’s own life is strengthened when the person feels that the activity he or she is engaged with is equipped with one or more of them. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Autonomy. The best way to ruin someone’s inner motivation is to start controlling it. Decades of research has shown that external rewards and punishments decreases the person’s intrinsic motivation. This is true in work environments where controlling managers produce subordinates who no longer feel that they have the ownership over their own work projects. It is true in schools where controlling teachers are able to suck the childrens’ natural curiosity and willingness to learn out of the learning experience. And it is true in one’s personal life where it has been shown that a wide range of life goals are better achieved as long as one feels one has autonomy in deciding how to achieve them.

Competence Another truth about human motivation is that we like to do things that we perform well. Sense of competence is a powerful motivator: when we feel that we are at the top of our game we rarely need any other motivators to continue. In fact, in these situations the activity flows so strongly and naturally that we become so absorbed in it that the question of motives doesn’t even arise. It is thus important to make sure one’s activities are designed so that they give enough challenge. Too little challenge and we get bored, too much challenge and we get anxious. But with the right amount of challenge, we feel that we are able to use the full range of our talent. And that is an energizing feeling.

Relatedness Ever since the times in the savannah, most of human accomplishments have been achieved in groups. Be it the hunting down of a mammoth, the farming of the family fields, or the building of a successful dot.com enterprise, we perform best as part of a team. Accordingly, the sense of relatedness is an important motivator. As human beings, we have a basic need to belong, to be a part of a bigger group in which we feel recognized and valued. That’s why being part of a group with a common goal is also a powerful motivator. Excitement is contagious and relatedness increases vitality.

But what if there is a fourth basic form of motivation that also makes us tick? What if a tendency to care about the well-being of others is also coded into our basic DNA? As social animals we are not only interested to make sure that others care about us. We also instinctively care about the others. Thus, we feel a sense of accomplishment and meaningfulness when we are able to engage in activities that contribute to the well-being of other people. During the last decade, more and more successful entrepreneurs have noticed that even though their work is fulfilling in all three dimensions above, they still lack something. And that something is the sense of making something valuable, contributing to the making of a better world for all of us. Therefore it can be suggested that there is a fourth basic human need: The willingness to make a meaningful contribution.

Take Zen Robotics as an example. The founders are all serial entrepreneurs with a number of success stories behind them. Their expertise and sense of excitement is about robots. They knew that with their experience, they could accomplish something with robots that others could only dream about. But this time they wanted to accomplish something that would not only be cool and sell well, but something that would make the world a better place. The only question was, where to find valuable enough target for their enthusiasm? Their answer was clean technology. As they themselves put it: ”The solution to the world’s waste problem is called ZenRobotics Recycler”.

These guys seem to know their intrinsic motivation. As entrepreneurs they have the freedom to do things their own way; in other words, they have found autonomy. At the same time they have found a highly challenging task that makes sure they are using their full competence. Their team spirit is great, thus they have a strong sense of relatedness within their company. And through their work they aim to contribute to solving an alarming global problem. Intrinsic motivation? These guys have it.

Do you as a leader want to get the most out of your employees? Do you as a teacher want to get the most out of your students? Do you as a parent want to make sure that your children will live a fulfilling life? If so, make sure that you aren’t suppressing them through control or depleting their energy through bad social relations. Instead, give them room for autonomy, support their growth in competence – and make sure that they feel that they are contributing towards something meaningful. Thus you wake up engagement and passion. That is the way to results that really matter!

Are household duties ruining your relationship? The solution: Do more than your partner!

Two persons move together. Love is in the air. But in addition to all the romantic cuddling on the couch, this means that from now on, they are sharing the household duties. No problem, they are a modern couple and decide to share them equally. Both hate doing them, so this way of distributing them makes sure that both individuals suffer equally under the strain of the dish pile. Fair enough.

Naturally, there is the all to human tendency to procrastinate (and perhaps the unconscious hope that the other will take care of the matter meanwhile). Given it and the fact that we tend to exaggerate our own good deeds and underestimate those of others, it will require careful balancing to really make sure that the household duties are distributed equally. Frictions in this balancing can easily flame into hot-headed arguments

Meanwhile, two other persons move together. Love is in the air. But in addition to all the romantic cuddling in the garden, this means that from now on, they are sharing the household duties. But what is special about this couple is that both of them take delight in helping the other. Both of them hate household duties, but knowing that, they also know how much they can cheer up the other by doing something extra. Psychology has shown that giving to others is one of the most robust ways to increase one’s own well-being and this couple has taken this lesson to their heart. Accordingly, they try to do their share, but when they have the energy, they even find themselves doing a bit more than that. Just to make the other happy. Balance is not so important because whether you do more or less than the other, either way you win!

So we have two couples. One of them believes in a transactional theory of human interaction: You give some, you get some. They see themselves as independent individuals. The other couple believes in a more interdependent view of human selfhood. Accordingly, their happiness resides almost as much in the other as it does in themselves.

Now, I don’t know which couple has the more realistic view of human beings. But it is not hard to predict which of the relationships is more happy.


Two persons move together. Love is in the air. But in addition to all the romantic cuddling on the couch, this means that from now on, they are sharing the household duties. No problem, they are a modern couple and decide to share them equally. Both hate doing them, so this way of distributing them makes sure that both individuals suffer equally under the strain of the dish pile. Fair enough.

Naturally, there is the all to human tendency to procrastinate (and perhaps the unconscious hope that the other will take care of the matter meanwhile). Given it and the fact that we tend to exaggerate our own good deeds and underestimate those of others, it will require careful balancing to really make sure that the household duties are distributed equally. Frictions in this balancing can easily flame into hot-headed arguments

Meanwhile, two other persons move together. Love is in the air. But in addition to all the romantic cuddling in the garden, this means that from now on, they are sharing the household duties. But what is special about this couple is that both of them take delight in helping the other. Both of them hate household duties, but knowing that, they also know how much they can cheer up the other by doing something extra. Psychology has shown that giving to others is one of the most robust ways to increase one’s own well-being and this couple has taken this lesson to their heart. Accordingly, they try to do their share, but when they have the energy, they even find themselves doing a bit more than that. Just to make the other happy. Balance is not so important because whether you do more or less than the other, either way you win!

So we have two couples. One of them believes in a transactional theory of human interaction: You give some, you get some. They see themselves as independent individuals. The other couple believes in a more interdependent view of human selfhood. Accordingly, their happiness resides almost as much in the other as it does in themselves.

Now, I don’t know which couple has the more realistic view of human beings. But it is not hard to predict which of the relationships is more happy.

Being individualistic and altruistic at the same time. The story of Jack Casey the firefighter.

Have you ever swam through icy waters fully clothed and without a life jacket to drag to the shore an unconscious woman who you never met before? Jack Casey has. In the course of two years he responded as a volunteer to more than five hundred emergency calls ending up saving people from burning buildings or risking his personal safety by entering situations where persons were stabbed by their own family members. Ever since high school volunteering has been a big part of Jack Casey’s life. In addition to being a member of the rescue squad he spends three hours a week teaching a Red Cross course in first aid and takes people backpacking through an outdoor program he initiated a few years before. Jack Casey is truly a selfless american hero who wants to be there for the others.

At the same time Jack Casey describes himself as a person ”who likes to be relatively independent of other people.” He refuses to be dependent on anyone and prides himself for being a rugged individualist who does what he wants, when he wants, disregarding anyone’s opinion. Freedom to do what one wants has been said to be the number one American value. At least for Jack Casey it is his guiding principle.

Jack Casey represents what Robert Wuthnow calls an American paradox. On the one hand he is more individualistic and less dependent on others than most of us. On the other hand he cares for others much more than the average person. What is he then, an individualist or an altruist?

The answer is: he is both. Being individualistic and caring about others don’t cancel each others out. They are like apples and oranges. First there is the issue of who controls our lives? Are we able to make independent choices or are we so weak and dependent on others that we let them run our lives? This is the question of individualism. It is thus a question about are we in charge of our own lives.

Second we have the issue of who do we care about? Are we egoistic persons for whom only our own benefits count? Or are we more altruistic persons who find satisfaction in helping others? This is the question of altruism. An individualistic person who makes his or her own life decisions can make a totally independent choice of whether to help only oneself or help also those in need. As long as the choice is one’s own, one is an individualist. Thus it is perfectly possible to be an altruistic individualist.

The paradox is that in our times individualistic people are actually more altruistic than less individualistic people. Wuthnow found in her survey that those people who placed a high emphasis on self-oriented values such as realizing one’s talent were actually slightly more likely to be involved in charitable activities than other citizens.

The reason for this is found in the fact that we are constantly bombarded with propaganda that says that everyone should take care of only their own business. There is a norm in our society that tells that either be self-interested or be a fool. And no one wants to be the fool. Thus many people suppress their more altruistic instincts in order to live up to the selfish norms of our times. They don’t dare to be unselfish as they fear that people would mock them for not being able to take care of their own interests. It actually takes courage to admit that one did something for others without any self-interest in mind.

We live in paradoxical times: It is the weak who believe that you should only care about yourself. It takes some balls to be out there and admit that one cares about others and is willing to make sacrifices for them. So be a true individualist and dare to care about others!