Lindsay, Snooki, Mel. We're on a first-name basis with bad behavior these days, whether we want to be or not. Don't bother looking away from that tabloid rack at the checkout counter. There is no escape. Even the president got into the act recently with a Snooki reference. We're not so familiar, though, with a key trigger of the arrested development that brings us the melodramas of actress Lindsay Lohan, reality TV personality-of-the-hour Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, and actor Mel Gibson: the wrong yardstick for self-worth.
It turns out that something we seldom consider, why we do what we do, has a major impact on worth perception--and as a result, on our happiness, or misery, as in the aforementioned crew. Researchers say there are two basic motivations in life: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you're intrinsically motivated, you're driven by internal validation, which makes you less subject to the insecurities that come from basing your self-concept on what others think. People who are externally motivated are run by the outer optics we are led to believe are the only gauges of personal value--money, appearance, status, fame, work performance. It all comes down to being controlled by other people's approval, or disapproval, in the case of Snooki.
A host of science tells us this is a splendid prescription for unhappiness. Worth based on external approval is subject to others' opinions, which change, so it's very fickle. Plus, it doesn't stick. You get a momentary bump, but you don't really buy it, because it's coming from someone else, so you have to constantly grub for more external strokes. You wind up with what's called contingent self-esteem. All your value comes from an external domain--popularity, beauty, job title--that can be disrupted at any time. This creates a very fragile ego. A critical comment, bad performance or bad hair day, and you're worthless. Lose your job, and your identity is wiped out. You are nobody. Or so the external narrative would have you believe.
In the course of writing a new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on where we really get our worth and happiness--full engagement in intrinsic experiences--I reviewed stacks of data on how lousy external motivation is. When self-esteem is based on external measures--appearance, performance, approval--there is more stress, anger, and substance abuse (1). The more importance placed on wealth aspirations, the poorer the well-being (2). The stronger the financial goal, the lower the satisfaction with family life (3). External motivation leads to an increase in social comparisons with others--and more insecurity as a result (4). Somebody always has you beat. Another insidious thing that happens is that obsessive external focus crowds out intrinsic experiences (5), which happen to be where your life is. And the findings go on.
The Lindsay, Snooki and Mel shows are extreme variants of the external road we're all bred to follow. Be rich, beautiful, work till you drop, and then you'll be happy. But the research, and our own guts and stress, tell us otherwise. This stuff doesn't work. What does is intrinsic motivation, something that runs counter to every signal we get. When you act for authentic internal goals--for the challenge, joy, excellence, growth, community, for the moment of engagement itself--you're in line with your own aspirations and, better yet, you don't have the exaggerated expectations that set you up for disappointment and cynicism. You find inherent worth in the experience itself, and that's something that sticks.
Intrinsic values have been shown to increase well-being, positive mood, esteem and vitality. The upshot from pursuing these more enlightened internal goals is self-determined satisfaction, which provides a sense of meaning. The dividends of the intrinsic course fall into the realm that the University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman calls "gratifications," the lasting form of happiness.
Everyone has to negotiate the external path to make a living, but the research shows that the more you can opt for intrinsic goals, the happier you'll be. In a world that's all external goals, all the time, the blinders keep the high school mentality essential to reality programs and out-of-control celebrities raging on decades after the prom. The constant need for external approval leads to the zenith of futility, knocking yourself out to validate the fake identity of a pseudo self-esteem. It's a lot of work to prove you're someone you're not. Life satisfaction, the science shows, comes from full engagement in experiences that bring internal value. That's something no one else can see unless they have a brain scan of the fist-bumping section of your cranium.
Joe Robinson is an author and work-life balance trainer and speaker whose new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," is a samba-dancing, dragon-boat paddling, rock-climbing ride through the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. The book comes out Oct 25. For more info, visit twitter.com/worklifeskills, dontmissyourlife.net (Sept. 7), and worktolive.info.
Notes: 1. Jennifer Crocker, "The Costs of Seeking Self-Esteem," Journal of Social Issues (58), 2002. 2. Tim Kasser, V. Vansteenkiste, J. R. Deckop, "The Ethical Problems of a Materialistic Value Orientation for Businesses," Human Resource Management Ethics, 2006. 3. Carol Nickerson, Norbert Schwarz, Edward Diener, Daniel Kahneman, "Zeroing in on the Dark Side of the American Dream: A Closer Look at the Negative Consequences of the Goal of Financial Success," Psychological Science (14), no. 6, 2003. 4. Tim Kasser, Richard Ryan, "Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22, no. 3, 1996. 5. Bruno Frey, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, "The Cost of Price Incentives: An Empirical Analysis of Motivation Crowding-Out," American Economic Review, 1997.