What Is Intrinsic Motivation, And How Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Intrinsic motivation is the type of internal motivation you use to complete a task you enjoy or want to complete for no other reason than pure enjoyment. For example, an individual might act from intrinsic motivation if they apply for a job because it is their dream job, even if it doesn't offer a significant financial benefit. The opposite of intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation, where individuals rely on external or extrinsic rewards or punishment to motivate. Understanding intrinsic and extrinsic motivations can help you understand how to increase joy in your life in the activities in which you engage.

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Understanding intrinsic motivation

To understand human motivation and how it can impact cognitive development, it is important to understand rewards and how they impact human behavior. When you have an internal rewards system that drives you to act, you are experiencing intrinsic motivation. With this type of motivation, you're not getting any obvious external rewards for your behavior but instead offering yourself the feeling of contentment, happiness, higher self-determination, or self-actualization. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination theory are linked, as people with high intrinsic motivation factors may be more self-determined. 

To help with conceptualizing intrinsic motivation, a few examples of intrinsically motivated behaviors include the following: 
  • Joining a choir because you like to sing 
  • Volunteering because you want to help people 
  • Staying longer at work because you like your coworkers
  • Smiling because you want to 
  • Doing your makeup and dressing up because it makes you happy
  • Singing with your friends because it makes you feel connected
  • Applying for a play because you enjoy acting 

In contrast to the intrinsic rewards above, if you were acting out these same activities with extrinsic motivations (external motivation), they might look like the following: 

  • Joining a choir to gain community recognition 

  • Volunteering to add it to your resume

  • Staying longer at work to apply for a promotion 

  • Smiling to get someone's attention 

  • Doing your makeup and dressing up to attract someone you like 

  • Singing with your friends to show off your skills 

  • Applying for a play because you want a career in acting 

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations can have positive impacts on an individual. However, intrinsic motivation may focus more on the benefit you're giving yourself instead of the benefit or rewards you receive from your environment or the people around you. Intrinsic motivation can help you increase resilience and reduce social comparisons. 

Do I have intrinsic motivation?

Many people use intrinsic motivation in daily life. For example, you might engage in a new hobby for its own sake and have fun doing it because of the enjoyment and not for any gain. Some people are intrinsically motivated to read because they enjoy books and it gives them inherent satisfaction. If reading is your hobby, you might partake in it because of intrinsic factors such as it makes you happy or it is interesting to learn about new things, not because you're asked to. However, if you are asked to read for a class, you might struggle to make yourself read, as it's not an intrinsic choice in that situation. 

Intrinsic motivation can involve your core values and how you assign personal meaning. You may feel better about the world in which you live in, yourself, or others around you due to intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation can also involve mindfulness principles, helping you live in the moment instead of considering how each action might provide external rewards or benefit you in the long run. You can enjoy your life as it occurs when you act out of intrinsically motivated joy, excitement, and value. For some individuals, seeking out novel ideas, situations, or experiences is intrinsically motivating. This is called sensory curiosity and involves motivation that stems from new experiences.

Why does intrinsic motivation work?

Intrinsic motivation often works because it increases positive emotions and neurotransmitters in the brain that can make you feel happy and fulfilled. You might also feel a sense of success or happiness from extrinsic motivation, but extrinsic motivation may not always align with your core values, wants, and interests. Because you enjoy what you're doing when intrinsically motivated, you may feel more willing to partake in it for a long time and encourage others to do it. In addition, you might put more effort, detail, and creativity into each activity, especially if that activity is at your optimal challenge level. You may expect a high-quality result from an intrinsically motivated activity; activities that reap extrinsic rewards may not be as fulfilling. 

Someone who does an activity because they are expecting to be rewarded or are trying not to get punished may engage in the least possible amount of work to still receive the reward or avoid harm without much cognitive curiosity. Someone with an intrinsic reward system may do the best job possible because they want to. Any success gained from their intrinsic actions may be an additional source of joy but not the primary one. They may also find growth and internal rewards from completing what they love and striving to do better in the future if mistakes are made. Someone who makes mistakes while extrinsically motivated may feel less motivation to engage in that particular task or activity again. 

Social psychology has found that giving someone external rewards for the same activity that the individual already finds intrinsically rewarding can reduce the intrinsic reward the person feels; this is known as the overjustification effect. Though that doesn't mean that you can't get paid to do what you love, it does mean that you might come to enjoy it less as you start to use it for a money-making venture as extrinsic factors begin to come into play. However, competing studies show that intrinsic motivation in a career may be increased with extrinsic reinforcement. 

Finding your intrinsic motivation

If you aren't sure what is intrinsically motivating to you, consider what hobbies you've enjoyed before. If you've never tried a hobby, there are thousands to try. Look up a list of favorite local activities or ways to pass the time. You could start exploring each activity independently or seek professional assistance to help you feel more passionate about the activities in which you already engage. At times, a lack of intrinsic motivation may be associated with mental health conditions like depression. 

Counseling options 

If you struggle with motivation, talking to a mental health professional may benefit you. Many individuals avoid in-person therapy because of barriers like cost, distance, or availability of providers. However, with online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, you can reach out to a licensed professional from anywhere in the country and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

Online therapists can also offer worksheets and outside resources you can use to increase your motivation or cope with mental health challenges. Being able to meet with someone from any location with an internet connection, you can receive support even when you struggle to leave home or are on vacation, making online therapy convenient. Studies have also found online therapy more cost-effective than in-person therapy.


Motivation can be a tricky subject. Not everyone is motivated by the same factors, so understanding the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can prepare you to increase the activities in your life that make you happy, content, and fulfilled. If you want to learn more about motivation or discuss potential mental health challenges, you can also contact a licensed therapist for guidance at any time.

Struggling to find motivation in your life?
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