March 24, 2012

Not every goal is good for you. Choose wisely what you wish for

"One day, I hope to be able to drive a Porsche ... that is my big dream", a former colleague of mine once told me. I don't know whether his dream has come true (we lost contact) and, if yes, whether his life has become better for it. Someone else I know told me she really hoped to become a teacher one day, which she eventually did and which she enjoys a lot. What a difference in dreams ...

Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan (1996) have distinguished between two types of aspirations or life goals: extrinsic aspirations and intrinsic aspirations. Examples of extrinsic aspirations are financial success, fame, and having an attractive image. Examples of intrinsic aspirations are personal growth, developing meaningful relationships, contributing to the community and being physically fit and healthy.

Much research has been done into the relation the types of aspirations people have and their psychological health and well-being. In a new book, Ed Deci summarizes this research as follows: "Consistently, the studies have shown that when people's aspirations for pursuing extrinsic outcomes are relatively stronger than their aspirations for pursuing intrinsic outcomes, individuals tend to have lower self-esteem and self-actualization, as well a as higher depression, anxiety, narcissism, and Machiavellism, among other outcomes." An explanation for this is that while intrinsic aspirations are directly related to basic psychological needs (need for autonomy, need for competence, and need for relatedness), extrinsic aspirations are, at best, only indirectly related to these psychological needs.

Niemiec, Ryan, and Deci (2009) found that the importance people place on a certain type of aspiration (extrinsic or intrinsic) is a predictor of the degree to which they later attain these goals. They also found, that increases in the attainment of intrinsic goals related to greater well-being and less ill-being while increases in the attainment of extrinsic goals did not relate to greater well-being but did predict ill-being.

This is valuable information for the way we manage ourselves, raise and educate our children, and the way we define capitalism. I certainly acknowledge how seductive these extrinsic aspirations can be. But it is clearly unwise to give into them too much. How can we raise awareness about the value of intrinsic aspirations and the dangers of extrinsic aspirations? How can we free ourselves, at least in part, from our extrinsic aspirations? How can we encourage a culture in our organizations and countries which focuses more on intrinsic aspirations than on extrinsic aspirations?

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