According to three Polish scientific researchers, the values that we all come to realise in life are drawn from our personal strivings and our own motivations. As a result, people are able to attain a greater level of meaning in their lives, their work suggests, so long as they remain motivated. For some, this might seem an obvious proposition: being motivated by your values means that you will achieve a greater sense of meaning in life. However, the hypothesis had not been fully tested until Zuzanna Siwek and her co-authors, Anna Oleszkowicz and Aleksandra Słowińska, first published their research paper into the subject in 2016.
Building on Established Psychological Theories
According to Siwek at al., their work – which was carried out on a sample of Polish university students – started out from the point of view of two commonly accepted theoretical ideas in psychology. The first was developed by Deci and Ryan which is often referred to as self-determination theory (SDT). Their idea is that motivation in individuals addresses issues of competence, relatedness and autonomy. For psychologists, competence the term used for our desire to control outcomes. Relatedness is best described as our innate desire to connect and care with others. Finally, autonomy is our desire to be the agents of control in our own lives. You can think of it with the ability to make decisions for ourselves.
Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is dealt with under SDT. For most psychologists, motivation is not a single concept but something that changes depending on the situation.
What might motivate you at work might not be the same as at home, for example.
Since the 1970s, psychological studies have referred to intrinsic motivation as our natural desire to face new challenges and engage in play with things we are curious about. Conversely, extrinsic motivations are not innate. These are motivations that come from outside of our inner selves, such as rewards for performance or mere praise.
To break it down greatly, SDT claims that people will grow and function optimally when competence, relatedness and autonomy are working in harmony. Competence is when we try to control the outcome of something and relatedness is how connected to others we are in our actions. Finally, autonomy describes the degree of agency we have over ourselves.
Siwek’s other theoretical inspiration came from the so-called logotherapy that was first developed by the esteemed psychologist Victor Frankl. His theory is based on the reasonable assumption that human beings are motivated by their search for a sense of purpose. According to Frankl, logotherapy is merely a word that represents the search for a purposeful meaning in life.
By building on these theoretical ideas, the researchers were able to build a study that utilised Personal Striving Assessments (PSAs), a system developed by Robert Emmons, a Professor of Psychology based in the US. Her teams’ findings used these theories to demonstrate that meaning in life is indeed closely related to motivation. It is also related, they found, to a number of other personal values that participants responded to in their assessments which were often manifested in their personal strivings in life.
The Research Programme
The Polish psychologists had a good sample size for their study. No less than 353 students took part in the programme, 159 women and 194 men. Interestingly, the study’s authors claimed that the meaning in life that men and women reported was important to them was different in their own assessments. Men, for example, were more likely to ascribe financial success as being important in life, an extrinsic motivation, whereas women were more likely to value relationships, both intimate ones and friendships, intrinsic motivations. All of the respondents in the study were under the age of 25 and enrolled in full-time education which, the authors freely admit, means that their research is not a reflection of society as a whole.
How Do Motivation and Personal Values Lead to Greater Meaning in Life?
The research paper reported that behaviour and strivings of intrinsically motivated individuals are, more often than not, directed toward their own interests, a significant new finding. As a result, it was found that people are more willing to engage in personal development as a result of their autonomous motivation. Indeed, Siwek et al. claim that such people are characterised by a greater vitality, improved creativity and better levels of happiness.
Moreover, Siwek’s team found that different values in personal strivings facilitated differing scores for meaning in life, according to their respondents’ own assessments. Although personal motivations varied between men and women in the study, the relationship between them and meaning in life was consistent regardless of gender. Another extrinsic value, that of physical appearance, appeared to make no difference to meaning in life or to happiness whichever group was being looked at. As such, it seems that happiness cannot be wrought from a sense of self-worth that is based on looks alone.
Summing up, Siwek claimed that meaning in life is most directly associated with the intrinsic motivation of intimacy and friendship although extrinsic factors, such as reward motivation and financial success, also form direct correlations with a sense of life meaning. She went on to add that although these gender differences were notable, no explanation could yet be offered as to why they exist and that further research would be needed to offer one.