In Search for Happiness: Some Thoughts on Intrinsic Rewards

Gaming has been an important part of my life ever since my friend Julia was given her first personal computer for her birthday. We spent hours and hours installing and playing games, which was not so easy for two profane girls taking their first steps in Norton Commander. It was still DOS-time in Ukraine back then. Later I got my own Windows-based PC, and this was the time when the real gaming fun started. I can’t remember my parents ever being against my gaming habits presumably because I was an exemplary and self-sufficient school-girl.

My all-time-favourites included a role-playing game The Knights of Might and Magic, The Baphomet’s Sword full of exciting puzzles, The Tycoons, a neatly made economic strategy, and many others. I played till my eyes were red, my right hand sore, till my brain was boiling from all the strategic thinking done. I did not let go till I succeeded. I can remember the feeling of the overwhelming happiness when I earned my first million in the Tycoons. I remember hiding behind the chair at the first confrontation with a tiger in the Tomb Raider. All of it seemed so incredibly real: it felt like having all those money on my non-existing account. It felt like the tiger was right there in my room. Having goose bumps all over my body, feeling chill and drive, smiling to myself and laughing out loud while being totally absorbed by the virtual world behind the screen – I have experienced it all. This is why reading “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal feels like talking to an old friend with a much better perspective and a comprehensive understanding of all these feelings.

But this post will not exactly be a review of the book as a whole, although, as you have probably already understood, I sincerely admire McGonigal and her work. Here and now I would like to concentrate on one particular topic the author just lightly touches in her book – on as few as four pages which opened my eyes on a couple of very important, but as I was surprised to discover, not completely self-evident things.

In the sub-chapter “The Four Secrets to making Our Own Happiness” (2011:45) McGonigal goes into detail about discoveries of positive psychology which, as its name reveals, is a discipline preoccupied with research of the human positive mental and emotional states, or in other words – with happiness.

McGonigal explains that according to scholars of positive psychology we cannot just find happiness, therefore there is no objective external factors that are capable of elevating us to the seventh heaven. In order to be happy we ought to proactively create our own felicity (ibid.) On the one hand, we can try to pursue status-related happiness which in terms of the positive psychology results in “extrinsic rewards”. According to McGonigal, the extrinsic rewards may include material, monetary or prestige-related credits for our activities (ibid.) The trick of these rewards is in their rather unpleasant side-effect – they work just like illegal drugs providing us with a very intensive, but very brief satisfaction kick. After a while such rewards prove to be deceitful in one respect – they trigger a “hedonic adaptation” (ibid.), which means that each and every one of them raises the bar for our future achievements and acquisitions. In these terms, the search for happiness from the outside appears to be a race we cannot win.

Watch a TED Talk by Jane McGonigal: Video games for a better world

On the other hand, we can also pursue happiness from within. In this case we are creating a long-lasting state of satisfaction by feeling good with ourselves without any acknowledgements from the outside world. This state of mind is a product of “intrinsic rewards” or self-crediting for satisfying personal relationships and activities (ibid.) The intrinsic rewards are non-material, non-countable and strictly individual. They are products of self-motivated activities irrelevant to the enhancement of one’s socio-economic status. Therefore, they are the direct doorway to escaping social pressures and clichés.

In a way this statement was a revelation to me. Somehow in one point of my life I lost the sence of differentiation between these two types of rewards. As McGonigal emphasizes: “It contradicts what so many of us have been taught to believe – that we need life to be a certain way in order for us to be happy…” (2011:46). It seems that from the very early age we are put under the pressure of certain socio-economic constrains, which soundly change our comprehension of happiness. The concepts of satisfaction, success, sufficiency, productiveness are strongly bound to the extrinsic rewards. We are tought to try harder, to be the best, to define our lives through the achievements in the outside world, while our intrinsic universes are collapsing under the pressure of expectations. Somehow in the process of this false and never-ending pursuit of happiness, we lose out of sight the simple, solid things that are truly capable of making us enduringly satisfied and content with ourselves. These things are even being degraded – if not openly, than somewhere between the lines.

Our productiveness is defined in terms of material rewards. Price-tags are being assigned to our personalities on the basis of our achievements, and once snatched those payments are expected to be reinvested into the material equivalents of our success, the counterparts of our socio-economic station. Leaving others behind, disconnecting from our social environment, becoming narrow-minded, less tolerant, less sensitive to troubles and miseries of others, burning out – all these are the symptoms of the fundamentally false definition of happiness. It is not about the length of our working day or about the complexity of assignments we are dealing with – a satisfying, emotionally rewarding occupation can not push one towards depression or mental melt-down.

So what does it all leave us with?

I would like to speak for myself here: I shall try not to lose the importance of the intrinsic rewards out of my sight. I shall try to persuade myself, that my job is not me, it is just something that I do and thankfully enjoy. I don’t know if it will work or how long I shall need to restructure my life in accordance with this discovery. The thing I am affirmative about is that I shall not feel bad for playing computer games anymore. I shall not have a big ugly stain on my consciousness if I do something that will not exactly bring me further in the outside world. I shall try not to “invest” in myself, or at least not to think of myself in terms of capital assets. I believe I used to know what real happiness was about. I believe I can recover this knowledge from some long-forgotten dusty mother board of my brain.


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