Rewards, Goals and Flow: A Look at How to Foster Motivation

October 24, 2022
Senior Wealth Planner Ross Bruch discusses the many different types of motivation and what role “flow” plays in keeping us interested and engaged in life.

Whether it’s building professional success, pursuing individual passions or harnessing the powers of resilience and grit, motivation serves as a key ingredient of happiness and well-being. At Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), we’re often asked about motivation – or more specifically, how parents and grandparents can provide opportunities, privileges and resources to next generation family members without destroying their children’s and grandchildren’s motivation to work hard and persevere through adversity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no single universal explanation of what motivates everyone. This is in part because people are individualistic in their pursuits and interests, but additionally, several decades of psychology research have established that the concept of motivation covers a wide spectrum of situations, behaviors and beliefs. At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated subject, we believe the easiest way to think about different types of motivation is to divide it into three separate categories: rewards and punishments, goals and values, and intrinsic motivations. All three are unique, and helping loved ones understand when to apply each is extremely useful for navigating life’s ups and downs and fostering a strong desire to continuously improve our lives.

Carrots and Sticks

The most basic form of motivation is generated through rewards and punishments – in other words, a “carrot and stick” approach. Although rewards and punishments are often created by external sources (for example, the offer of a discount for paying a bill early or the threat of a late fee for an overdue library book), people can also internalize rewards and punishments in their own minds based on how they feel about themselves or their perception of how others feel about them (such as a sense of pride for completing all of the tasks on a to-do list or a feeling of guilt for skipping an important family get together). Reward and punishment systems can be effective at temporarily increasing motivation but typically fail to continue to inspire action over longer periods of time. For example, exercise routines, diets and attempts to build or avoid certain habits rarely succeed in the long run if they are only reinforced through rewards and punishments.

Alignment of Goals and Values

The next form of motivation incorporates goals and values to encourage or discourage certain actions. For obvious reasons, this is a much more complex psychological system than rewards and punishments, and thus requires greater attention and energy to develop. But focusing on long-term objectives to change behavior also offers greater potential to increase motivation in a more robust and lasting manner.

Building motivation through goals and values not only requires you to identify what objectives matter to you, but also why these goals and virtues are important. For example, you may have a strong desire to achieve professional success, but it’s important to ask why you want to achieve this success; perhaps you hope to gain financial independence, have your skills, abilities, and intelligence recognized by your peers and colleagues, or move into a leadership role to gain greater amounts of autonomy and control over your time – or maybe the answer is a combination of these and several other possibilities. Understanding the underpinnings of these objectives can help you focus your efforts and give more meaning and purpose to the pursuit of your goals.

Similarly, understanding your values and character strengths can reinforce this motivation by helping you align your actions with your self-perceived identity. For example, if you value hard work and a healthy lifestyle, you may have an easier time (that is, be more motivated) developing and adhering to a regimented exercise routine than someone who only occasionally goes to the gym because they feel guilty if they don’t.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Motivations that come from either rewards and punishments or acting in accordance with your goals and values are both considered extrinsic motivations because in order for them to be influential, they require external inputs and feedback. However, the last of the three motivational categories, intrinsic motivation, is only created through internal sources. In other words, intrinsic motivation occurs when you perform an action solely for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. If you do crossword puzzles or play tennis merely because you want to, these are forms of intrinsic motivations. Of course, the lines between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are often blurred – sometimes these activities overlap with other benefits. Maybe you also do puzzles to keep your mind sharp or play tennis because it keeps you physically active. Regardless of such motivational overlap, research has identified intrinsic motivation as being highly influential in shaping people’s lives and actions and extremely beneficial to their overall well-being.

When you are engaged in an intrinsically motivated activity, the outside world shuts off. You feel fully absorbed, focused and engaged in that moment. Time feels like it stops. Colloquially, this is sometimes referred to as “being in the zone,” but psychologists refer to this well-known, well-researched phenomenon as “flow,” a term coined by the late Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High). As Csíkszentmihályi and other researchers have demonstrated over the past five decades, developing periods of flow can often lead to improved performance, accelerated learning and skill development, increased productivity, a greater sense of happiness and well-being, improved enjoyment and creativity, and even higher levels of resiliency. The development of flow may be best illustrated by the nearby graphic.

Flow requires the right combination of challenge and abilities. If you are engaged in an activity that is too difficult and don’t feel comfortable with the task at hand given your skillset, it creates a feeling of anxiety. Imagine being a first-time skier who belongs on the bunny hills of a mountain but is instead forced to traverse a black diamond slope. It’s impossible to function well under those circumstances, and flow doesn’t have a chance to develop because your brain wants to devote all of its attention to ensuring your safety and survival. On the other hand, imagine yourself a well-seasoned skier who feels comfortable under any mountain conditions. If you are forced to continuously run the easiest course of the mountain over and over, you will experience boredom, not flow, because there is no challenge for you to engage with and become mentally lost in.

The key to flow is staying within the middle channel – increasing your skills and abilities over time while taking on new, more difficult challenges. That, above all other elements of motivation, may be the most important way to stay interested and engaged in life. And flow doesn’t just appear on the ski slopes or tennis courts. It doesn’t even require leisure time to develop. Many people find elements of flow in their jobs or day-to-day activities, such as talking with clients, problem-solving new solutions or teaching a younger colleague a new skill. Flow simply requires finding the right challenge to fit your current abilities and identifying ways to increase both your skills and the challenge over time.

How to Increase Motivation

If your goal is to increase motivation for yourself or your loved ones, it is essential to first understand the role you hope motivation will serve. In the case of a short-term, finite objective, carrots and sticks are often effective and can be highly influential. For example, if the goal is to help yourself or someone else meet a deadline or give just a little more effort, reward and punishment motivators work well. But if you hope to build a lasting change in someone, this form of motivation often backfires and is far less effective than other options.

If rewards and punishments will fall short of building the necessary influence, consider focusing on the alignment of tasks and activities with goals and values. It is easier to help others stay motivated if they understand why their actions matter and see their activities align with how they view themselves in the world. The questions of why and who they are can be difficult to tackle and require effort and focus, but the motivational rewards of developing a better understanding of themselves can be outstanding and inspirational.

Last but not least, developing flow may be the most powerful motivational tool in the human psyche. Doing something not as a means to an end but because it is the end goal is extremely motivating and, unfortunately, is experienced far too infrequently in adulthood. We believe it is a rarity not because it is impossible to achieve, but because too often people are prone to avoid anxiety and challenges and instead accept boredom in their place. And while searching for activities, careers and experiences that ignite your sense of flow is a laborious task, as with the exploration of goals and values, it is worth the physical and mental effort involved in order to reap lasting motivational rewards.

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