The Pursuit of Happiness: Internal or External?

According to Randy P. Auerbach of Harvard Medical School, McLean Hospital, positive feelings and feelings of happiness are the result of intrinsic pursuits. “Intrinsically-motivated goals are thought to be inherently interesting, pleasurable, and/or meaningful,” said Auerbach. “In contrast, extrinsically-motivated goals are typically sought in order to attain a reward (i.e., material goods or money) or to avoid punishment.” Research has shown that pursuing both intrinsic and extrinsic goals can be beneficial, but not when one is at the expense of the other. Auerbach said, “Guided by self-determination theory, the research posits that the neglect of intrinsic goals ultimately thwarts the satisfaction of core, inherent psychological needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy, which in turn contributes to negative psychological outcomes including depressive symptoms.” Additionally, people who value extrinsic goals over intrinsic goals may neglect their interpersonal relationships and exert all of their time and energy in the pursuit of material objects and money. Another concern is that children whose parents value extrinsic goals above intrinsic ones may not foster sufficient interpersonal skills in their children, creating maladaptive relationship models for them as adults.

To test how the prioritization of values affected the psychological well-being of adolescents from various cultures, Auerbach and his colleagues studied over 600 teens from Canada and China. They found that the teens with the highest motivation toward extrinsic goals had elevated levels of interpersonal stress. “Further, consistent with past research examining the relationship between stress generation and prospective depressive symptoms, dependent interpersonal stress predicted higher levels of depressive symptoms over time.” The team added, “In conclusion, the present study highlights the relationship between aspirations, stress, and depressive symptoms in culturally distinct samples of adolescents. Traditional prevention and treatment programs primarily target cognitive and interpersonal vulnerability factors. However, the findings in the present study suggest that clinicians must also understand a patient’s core values as they may play an important role in shaping stress generation and subsequent symptoms.”

Auerbach, Randy P., Christian A. Webb, Meghan Schreck, Chad M. McWhinnie, Moon-Ho Ringo Ho, Xiongzhao Zhu, and Shuqiao Yao. “ExaMining the PathWay through Which Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations Generate Stress and Subsequent Depressive SyMptoMs.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 30.8 (2011): 856-86. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Casey.M

    November 2nd, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    A wonderful piece to read this! We have all forgotten our real need and requirement in this world-to co-exist peacefully and try and be happy in tandem with nature. We have given up on these intrinsic requirements and chase extrinsic ones like money,things and power. Those are not the things that will give us true happiness. Just look at the world around you-there is war,hatred,jealousy,never-ending wants and wishes-all this because we prefer extrinsic goals rather than intrinsic ones.

  • N@T€

    November 2nd, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    Goal setting and working on achieving it fosters well being and a feel good factor doesn’t it? Now how can the opposite be true? While the study does mention that ignoring or putting your intrinsic goals on the back burner would cause issues,it does not make it clear as to how any extrinsic goal could be achieved without a little bit of sacrifice on the intrinsic part. That is the balance of life isn’t it?

    If I’m working on a project for long to earn money,it may mean I have to forego a weekend outing with my family. But it also gives me an opportunity to go the next time and to a better place with the money I made from the project doesn’t it?

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