Intrinsic Motivation or Purpose Pursuit: Which matters most? By Genevieve Douglass

Posted by Tzlil
In Finding Links between Vitality and Authenticity, I wrote about self-determination theory. In the comments, Amanda Horne posted a wonderful question:

“Where does sense of purpose and meaning fit into the self-determination theory?” (Amanda, thank you for asking this, and sorry for taking so long to respond!)

Composing Music

Composing Music

It’s an excellent question, and one that I think deserves discussion. It has been on my mind lately as I immerse myself further in writing music, an endeavor that is almost entirely intrinsic, although accompanied by a few unhappy moments of wondering how many plays I’m getting and caring what people will think of my music. I don’t particularly have a purpose in doing it, but I’m motivated to keep at it. It’s energizing for me.

The question is also on my mind because a friend seems to be losing steam for one of her highly purpose-driven endeavors. Even though what she does helps people and brings more happiness to the world, she is finding it exhausting, and she seems to be losing interest.

So, a variant of Amanda’s question has started to pop up for me:

Is intrinsic motivation more important than pursuing a purpose?

Quick Review of Self-Determination Theory

Let’s go over self-determination theory (SDT), quickly, to better frame this question. Ryan and Deci outline a spectrum of motivation in SDT, ranging from no motivation at all to completely autonomous, intrinsic motivation, in which people behave freely of their own will out of interest or enjoyment in the activity for its own sake. In between are types of extrinsic motivation, in which the goal is something external, beyond the activity itself.

Ryan and Deci theorize that we are naturally in an intrinsically motivated state until our environment undermines it. In order not to undermine it, our environment must provide three supporting nutriments: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In other words, we need to feel that our actions are freely done and aligned with our values or interests, that we are able to achieve desired outcomes, and the activity connects us to others.

Quick Review of Meaning and Purpose

Purpose and meaning are a little harder to define with clarity. Carol Ryff defines high scorers in the area of ‘purpose in life’ as having goals and a sense of directedness along with the sense that their current and past lives are meaningful.

Seligman defines meaning as contributing to something greater than the self.

Personally, I consider purpose a broad goal or direction (e.g., improve people’s well-being) and meaning to be the emotional component or feeling connected to something greater than the self. This separation is consistent with Veronika Huta’s conceptualization of meaning as a feeling that results from behavior that is distinct from purpose.

Thinking about these definitions, I view the pursuit of purpose as the pursuit of something external, and therefore separate from intrinsic motivation.

What about Prosocial Motivation?

Adam Grant has done some research regarding prosocial motivation which comes as close as anything I have seen to connecting the ideas of motivation and the pursuit of something greater than the self.

   Fighting Fires

Fighting Fires

Grant describes prosocial motivation as involving a form of extrinsic regulation, in the language of Ryan and Deci, either the introjected goal of avoiding guilt or the identified goal of fulfilling one’s own values. It is a focus on the ends, rather than the means, whereas intrinsic motivation is a process-focused state. The last major difference that Grant notes is that intrinsic motivation involves a focus on the present, whereas prosocial motivation involves a focus on the future.

In his 2008 study, Grant asked how intrinsic and prosocial motivations interact to influence persistence, performance, and productivity. He conducted two studies, one on firefighters and one on fundraising call center employees. He surveyed their motivation types and looked at overtime hours for the firefighters and calls-per-week and money raised for fundraisers. He found that intrinsic motivation strengthened the association between prosocial motivation and persistence, performance, and productivity. That is, prosocial motivation is more likely to improve these outcomes when intrinsic motivation is present.

Intrinsic motivation independently predicted the number of overtime hours the firefighters worked, but not the calls or money raised by the call center. Grant suspects this may be due to the difference in job type: there are probably more opportunities for intrinsic motivation in firefighting. This finding suggests that prosocial motivation may not be enough in itself to enhance persistence, performance, and productivity.

While Grant focused on performance rather than well-being, these outcomes imply that there may be more energy behind a combination of the two motivation types, with perhaps intrinsic motivation dominating. Energy is important since performance, persistence and productivity involve expending effort.

What can we conclude?

Motivation in practice is complex, and it may be that during most pursuits a person is motivated in various ways. I don’t think that Grant’s paper is definitive, but it is a start. I still have a few questions: can meaning occur outside of purpose? How does the pursuit of a prosocial goal affect the nutriment of relatedness and vice versa? I welcome your comments and questions and intend to write more on this topic in the future.

Author’s Note: Adam Grant has a new book coming out next month, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success exploring the ways that people function in organizations as givers, takers, or matchers. Check out the book website here.


Grant, A. M. (2008). Does Intrinsic Motivation Fuel the Prosocial Fire? Motivational Synergy in Predicting Persistence, Performance, and Productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 48-58.

Huta, V. (2013). Pursuing eudaimonia versus hedonia: Distinctions, similarities, and relationships. In A. Waterman (Ed.), The Best Within Us: Positive Psychology Perspectives on Eudaimonia (pp. 139-158). APA Books.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Ryff, C. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069-1081.

Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behaviorPsychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Gagné, M. & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivationJournal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362.


Photo Credits via Compfight with a Creative Commons license
Firefighter courtesy of JEKruger
Composing Music courtesy of stephthegeek

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