Do Happiness and Motivation Conflict or Do They Go Together?

If you look at studies on motivation (typically around work), then you find that happy and engaged workers are more motivated. Or perhaps it’s that more motivated workers are happier with their jobs. Either way, it seems happiness and motivation go together.

However, motivation implies a desire for change. It means you are not happy with something and would like to change it. Happiness, however, implies you are content and therefore no change is needed. So happiness and motivation seem to be at odds with each other. But if you take it to the extreme, someone who is perfectly content will be completely unmotivated. This doesn’t seem right.

So which is it? Can you be content and yet driven? Happy and motivated? Or are these in conflict with each other?

Perhaps a better, deeper look at motivation and happiness is needed?


Let’s start by looking at motivation. This is probably the part that confuses the issue the most. As I mentioned before, motivation implies a desire for change. This is a particularly common assumption in the areas of personal development, where people are not happy with some aspect of their lives (weight, wealth, productivity, income, relationships, eating habits, etc) and are looking for more motivation in order to improve that aspect. But motivation does not actually mean change. Motivation is simply defined as the reason or reasons behind a particular behavior. Often those reasons come from an unhappiness about a current state and a desire for change, but not always.

Luckily, smart people have spent a lot of time studying motivation (after all, it’s critically important to the economy through the productivity of workers) and we can learn from their findings.

Dan Pink is one of those that have studied motivation extensively and he has an excellent Ted talk on the subject.



What he and others have found is that motivation is composed of three critical factors.




It’s important to note that these are intrinsic elements, not something external. The most effective motivation is intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation (e.g. carrot and stick reward and punishment systems) can work quite well too but it will not be as powerful as intrinsic motivation. Similarly, true happiness in intrinsic. There is no set of external circumstances that can either guarantee or prevent happiness since most studies indicate that only about 10% of our happiness is defined by our external circumstances.

Let’s look at each of these factors in more detail.


Autonomy shouldn’t be a surprise to the FIRE community. It matters to everyone but it seems to be particularly important to those who make the effort to delay current gratification in order to have more autonomy sooner in life. It’s embedded in the term financial FREEDOM and financial INDEPENDENCE. The ability to be financially free in order to have a great deal more autonomy in life is a key driver for most who are on the FI journey.


Mastery refers to the fact that people naturally enjoy doing things they are good at and where they see themselves improving. There is a bit of debate on which comes first, talent or interest but it doesn’t really matter. They go together and are self-reinforcing. As long as you have enough basic talent and interest to start something in a serious way, you will see improvement that will make you more interested in additional effort and focus.

You see this innate human need in many places. Video game designers are masters at this, creating addictive rapid progress in games that keep you hooked. Many people have a sports or hobby example where they started as a novice but enjoyed the new activity and then became more immersed and more skilled over time.

In the world of work, the most effective management practice is to focus on employees strengths instead of their weaknesses. Our strengths are where we deliver the most value and also where we have more interest and will therefore put in additional effort. Putting people into roles that don’t fit their interests tends to work out very poorly for everyone.

Purpose or value

Feeling like what you are doing matters is another key aspect of motivation. Note that this is a personal factor. What matters or is valued to one person may not be valued by another. But if you do something that you personally think matters, your motivation will be much higher. A great way to kill your motivation is to work on something that you don’t think is important. Unfortunately a fair number of jobs and businesses don’t seem to have an important, motivating purpose beyond simply making money. Those that have an authentic mission beyond just making money tend to have a more motivated and happy workforce, even as they spend more hours at work.  Interestingly, most of those organizations also  deliver high profits as well.

So when you’re feeling unmotivated about something, ask yourself why. It’s likely you either feel you’re being forced, that the activity is pointless, or that you don’t feel you’re good at it.

This is a good filter to look at parts of your job as well and try to shift towards activities that better fit the aspects described in this article. You’ll end up more motivated and happier; a win-win solution. I see too many people in the FIRE community that hate their job but most of us have a bigger ability to improve our work lives than we realize. Consider it a test-run for being happy in retirement. If you can’t improve your happiness at work before you leave, you’ll likely struggle when you leave your job and realize it wasn’t actually the source of all your unhappiness.

At the same time, most jobs do create some conflict with these core elements of human motivation.  In my case, I struggle with two aspects in my job: autonomy and purpose.

I feel like I’m forced to do a lot of specific tasks that I don’t think are valuable and that frustrates me. I’m also forced to do things a certain way because I work at a big company with a lot of defined processes. In addition, we have a lot of pressure to deliver results against very aggressive targets, which ultimately depends on many factors, most of which we have limited control over. And feeling responsible for something you can’t control is the classic recipe for stress.

But despite the restrictions, overall I have a reasonable amount of autonomy and am trying to take advantage of that more. Being FI is also helping me push back on aspects of my job I don’t enjoy or feel are valuable. This is helping me enjoy my job more and, and is worth the risk to me. Ironically it’s also possible that I will end up delivering more value to my organization by feeling able to challenge it more.

On the purpose side, my job is very financially driven which is not particularly motivating. However, the way we make money is by creating new and better products, which is inherently more motivating. It’s not the most optimum by any stretch from a purpose perspective but by doing things like working more directly with customers, it’s easier to see the value to others in the work, which helps with motivation.

I have to admit that despite this optimistic view, there are real limits in most jobs, including mine, to how much you can shape your role and environment. And while you can do a lot to shape your thoughts and attitude, it’s not just in your head, at least for those of us that aren’t buddhist masters. The environment matters, which is why FIRE is so appealing to myself and many others.

In the end, most of us in the FIRE community have strong passions outside our job and these passions hit on the key elements of personal motivation better than our jobs do. That’s why we’d rather spend time doing those things than working. But would that make us happier?


What about happiness? This gets even more involved than motivation but there are a few things we know pretty well about human happiness at this point from both ancient wisdom and the slew of happiness research done in the last few decades.


Again, studies indicate that only about 10% of our happiness is due to external circumstances like our job, or level of wealth, or house we live in. However, ~40% is influenced by our attitude and the things we do (the remaining 50% seems to be fixed based on genetics).

This goes beyond just your mindset…….we’re not talking about just a positive attitude here. It also includes the influence of doing things you enjoy; exercising, sleeping enough, doing meaningful work (typically creating something), and having fulfilling relationships.

But don’t your circumstances influence this other portion? In particular, the time you have available for these things? If you’re working 40, 50, or 60+ hours a week, isn’t it much more difficult to nurture strong relationships, exercise, get enough sleep, and spend time on your personal passions?

To me, it seems more work is needed around the influence of what you do with your time and your level of happiness. This necessarily alters your environment and has been shown to significantly influence your level of happiness, more than the typically cited 10% “environmental” happiness factor.

So making choices in both your attitude and what you do with your time is really autonomy right? Being FI gives a huge amount of autonomy. If you don’t like dedicating 40+ hours a week to your job, you can walk away and free up that time for something you value more. If you’re struggling to get enough sleep, or spend enough time with friends and loved ones, or exercise, or indulge your passions, then freeing up time for these things is very likely to make you happier. I have yet to meet or hear from anyone that truly valued these things being unhappy when they retired and freed up more time for them.

Being able to spend your time as you wish is a prime motivator for most people to achieve financial independence and the gut instinct for everyone is that this will lead to more happiness. This seems to be the case except for the rare instances of someone who is so used to working and being told what to do that they struggle with freedom.

To drive the discussion of autonomy home, a great example comes from the study of regret. Bonnie Ware is a palliative case nurse in Australia who spent time recording the top regrets of the dying and assembling a remarkably consistent set of life regrets from her patients. The top one?

#1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was not a single example.  It was the top-cited life regret.

So being able to choose is critically important to both motivation and satisfaction with your life.

Autonomy simply seems to be a very strong and inherent human desire.  

(BTW, I wish I hadn’t worked so hard was #2)


Purpose also shows up strongly in happiness as well as motivation.   It’s difficult to be truly happy without any sense of purpose. The definition of purpose seems be a bit grey to me, but overall it’s a sense that what you’re doing has meaning (to you). It doesn’t mean something grand like a life’s purpose or trying to save the world. It just means that what you spend your time doing should feel meaningful to you. Raising a family, creating something, doing work that helps others, teaching others, and protecting the environment are a few examples out of many that could be listed. Each person will have a different view of what is important and meaningful so it’s good to understand this for yourself and try to build this into your life. Happy people spend a good deal of their time doing things that are personally meaningful to them.


The concept of mastery or competence shows up less explicitly in happiness research but it’s well-known that making progress and building skills is one important element of happy activities. This shows up in studies of “flow”, first coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, where a state of high engagement means that all worries about the future, regrets about the past, or mental distractions fall away and only the present moment matters. A good example is an athlete being “in the zone” where he or she feels energized and confidant, fully focused in the moment.

In the end happiness is a current state, meaning it can only be found in the present. If you want to be more happy, you are encouraged to find those activities that give you that feeling of total engagement and spend more time doing them. These activities tend to be things you get good at and enjoy. So while there is a more direct link between motivation and feeling expert at something, there also seems to be a positive correlation with happiness as well. Certainly we all seem to enjoy activities we are good at and find very immersive.


Another concept that sometimes shows up in the research on motivation, and clearly in the study of happiness, is the feeling of belonging to part of a group (i.e relationships). From what I have learned from others, I would argue this is a 4th important aspect to our list for both happiness and motivation. It hasn’t shown up in the motivation research as clearly, which is driven by trying to understand productivity, but I suspect it plays a role behind the scenes. It’s well known that a positive or negative culture, immediate work group, and immediate supervisor make a big difference on whether people are happy in their job and also how much discretionary effort they will happily provide. We are social animals and a feeling of belonging to our “tribe” is very important. When that is not the case, it’s a very negative influence on our mindset.

In terms of happiness, good relationships with others is typically cited as the single most important factor in our happiness and a feeling of belonging is a key part of this, whether it’s to our immediate family, spouse, work group, or a social group. Being understood and accepted for who we are is key to our happiness.

Relevance of all this to FIRE?

For some people, their jobs provide a number of these elements, which are also complemented by a good “life” outside of work. But based on the poor statistics around engagement and job satisfaction globally, most people seem work mainly for money and they don’t get a satisfying level of inherent motivation or happiness from their jobs.  Based on what is described in this article, it’s not surprising. Jobs need to have some structure to align with the needs of the business. This necessarily restricts personal autonomy and often results in work that is misaligned with personal views of purposeful work. These seem to be the areas that most workers dislike about their jobs.

Autonomy in particular seems difficult to build into most jobs. You get more autonomy at higher levels of authority, which I suspect is a key reason that job satisfaction increases commensurately, but even then there are many restrictions.

Purpose is also something that is lacking in most companies and jobs but not all of them. The higher happiness of those working for organizations with a clear purpose beyond just making money is well-known. If the feeling of purpose is strong enough, it can also compensate for the lack of autonomy, since a bigger positive impact can be made with a larger group of people than alone. This can even be more important than higher freedom to many. In addition, an organization dedicated to a personally meaningful mission, can help build a strong social network, which fulfills the need to belong.

The one area in our list where jobs tend to do well is the area of competence. The positive feelings of development, learning, and being an expert are what motivate many workers in their careers. But it’s only one dimension of the several key ones we’ve covered in this article.

For many of us, a more self-determined life, directed in a personally purposeful way, is better able to satisfy these key elements of motivation and happiness than any external career could do.

In particular, most of us pursuing FIRE are quite independent. For example, there are a disproportionate number of us that have a strong DIY bias, regardless of income or wealth. Even though everyone seems to have some desire for autonomy, we seem to be especially driven to live a self-determined life.

In addition to greatly-improved autonomy, freedom from work chosen by someone else allows for the pursuit of personally meaningful activities, many of which are highly engaging. Spending more of your life doing these things is likely to make you happier.

Final Thoughts

So hopefully I’ve convinced you that the base elements of motivation and happiness are strikingly similar.

So why does this matter? And how can we use this information?

For me, as I’ve thought about the similarities in motivation and happiness, it’s helped me realize that there are inherent or structural reasons that I’m unlikely to get all of these core needs in an optimal way from my job, regardless of my degree of gratitude or positive thinking. There are inherent restrictions on autonomy and meaning that are difficult to change. I can do many things to improve these elements in my work but they will never be optimal.

Contrasting early retirement to working, without a doubt autonomy will be significantly improved.  But please make sure your plan doesn’t require such reduced spending that personal autonomy is actually restricted.  The money you save is supposed to give you increased freedom so make sure it’s enough to live the life you want without significant monetary restrictions.

In addition, with more time and sufficient motivation, personal development and gaining competence in various areas will also be relatively easy.

I see the biggest potential challenge with FIRE is purpose, followed closely by belonging. This is why retirement experts say it’s much better to retire “to” something versus just escaping a job you don’t like. If we don’t have something meaningful to motivate us, we can really struggle to be happy. Add the potential social isolation, and retirement can end up being a difficult transition. On a positive note, even the majority of those that don’t have a clear plan at the start of retirement eventually find meaningful activities after a challenging transition period and end up happier than they ever were working.

Another clear lesson is that a happy life is a very engaging and active one. It’s good to have some downtime and relaxation, but this is to recharge yourself for the next active pursuit. Retirement research indicates the same thing. If you retire to passive things like watching TV or other leisure activities, you’re less likely to be happy compared to someone who retires “to” something they are excited to start working on and wake up motivated to do each day.

Real happiness comes from action; spending time and effort doing meaningful, engaging activities of your choosing, ideally involving strong connections with others. The great thing is that if you consciously seek and increase the elements of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and belonging in your life, you will be both more motivated about your life, and happier living it.

These are complex topics and very active areas of research so some of the best answers are still out there somewhere. Do you have any experiences that agree or disagree with what’s here? Any additional thoughts to add for discussion? Please add you comments!




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