The Science of Happiness, Motivation, and Meaning

It turns out there’s quite a bit of cognitive dissonance impairing our understanding of motivation and happiness. Duke University’s Professor Dan Ariely fills in the gaps.

Motivation is a mysterious mechanism. It exists within all of us, but lays dormant unless unlocked. The ‘how’ is the difficult part, something business and individuals struggle with to varying degrees. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has found that there’s a dissonance between what we think motivates people and what actually does. The most simple formula for motivation, and the one we reach for the most often, is that money = motivation. Luxury rewards are a powerful idea, but are they really what drive us?

The postcard of happiness for many people is being sprawled out on a beach chair with a mojito in hand. However this is momentary happiness, and in reality if we took a survey of what really brings us happiness for many people the answer would be something surprisingly laborious. Why do we run marathons, build furniture, paint pictures, make music, climb ever larger and more perilous cliff faces? These things are difficult and intense; they’re not fun, per se. They’re no mojito by the beach. This is the difference between momentary happiness versus long-term happiness. It will differ for each of us, but ask yourself the question of what would really make you happy and you may find some confirmation there.

Ariely thinks our most common mistake in motivation is deferring instantly to money rather than considering the value of meaning and accomplishment. “We don’t do the things that are difficult and complex and challenging but give us a very different sense of happiness,” he says.

Ariely goes on to explain a motivational experiment that was conducted in two parts (watch above for the full explanation). The second part unveiled some particularly interesting insights. It seems we understand that meaning matters for people in any pursuit, but we underestimate (by about four-fold, in this experiment) exactly how much it matters. Managers, teachers, parents would all fare much better if they realized the importance of meaning, and invested in it.

Ariely’s newest book is Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations.