Motivation and Well-being: Flow and Finding Success

motivation and wellbeing
Well-being in Positive Psychology.

When it comes to motivation, literature still lacks a general definition. Despite the fact that many theories have been proposed over the years, we are still unsure what determines what we want.

Meanwhile, research in the field of Positive Psychology has come closer to understanding whether what we want actually makes us happy.

Here is how flow and motivation indirectly influence your well-being.


Understanding Motivation

Motivation, simply put, is wanting. But what determines what we want?

Some basic ideas have been substantiated over the years. For instance, it is widely recognized that our wanting can be either a trait (reoccurring pattern of desire) or a state (a desire dependant on a particular situation) (Baumeister, 2016). 

Some theories of motivation are need-based (such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory) while others are process-based (such as John Adam’s Equity Theory or Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory) (Ball, 2012).

The latest research in the field of motivation has identified four different drivers which may influence what we desire, collectively or individually: the sensual, material, emotional and spiritual (Shafi, Khemka, & Choudhury, 2016). The idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is also a common thread.

But the question still remains unanswered: why do we want what we want?

Research has seemed to place value on understanding the drivers of motivation and learning about their consequences; how motivation influences our life satisfaction.


Motivation and Flow

It is widely accepted that motivation affects performance. However, psychology research has found that the will to attain mastery is more beneficial for performance than an actual performance goal (Utman, 1997).

This is due to the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If we concentrate on learning, we do so for the inherent satisfaction of mastery (which is considered intrinsic motivation). This leads to flexible and creative responding and we are better able to focus on the task at hand and improve our skills.

On the other hand more extrinsically motivated behavior, such as performance goals, has been found to create a feeling of pressure which reduces engagement with the task.

The good news from the field of Positive Psychology: intrinsically motivated activities not only lead to better performance but also make us happier!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1999) refers to activities which are in themselves rewarding as “autotelic” (from the Greek words “auto” for self and “telic” for goal). The result of such activities is the experience of “flow.”

We can experience flow while performing a hobby such as painting or playing basketball or during work. Fundamental to flow are two things: we need to possess the necessary skills for the task, and the task must be challenging.

Intrinsic motivation may lead to flow at work, which is in itself rewarding, but the best is yet to come.

Flow not only lifts the spirit momentarily, but it has also been found to build psychological capital over time, which is a major component of human growth (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Just to clarify, even though time flies when you are watching television, this is not considered a flow experience as no skills are required and the activity is not challenging. Consequently you are not building psychological capital. When you find that skill which leads to an autotelic experience of flow – not only will you master it, but you will also become happier and ensure your personal growth over time.


Motivation and Success

The economic principle of utility – more equals better – precludes the assumption that humans are motivated by the possibility of acquiring more goods. Hence, the more successful we are in our careers and the more we earn, the happier we are supposed to be.

To the contrary, research has found that happiness often precedes success (Achor, 2011; Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2008). Happy people are less likely to be unemployed, are more satisfied with their jobs, and are more likely to be supported by their co-workers. This is how they are more productive and efficient.

Cabanas & Sanchez-Gonzales (2016) go so far as to claim this to be the “inversion of [Maslow’s] pyramid of needs.” They suggest raising happiness to the first-need category as a precondition for measures such as job satisfaction and performance.

Indeed, with all basic needs met, soft factors may play a central role in life satisfaction, since we live in an era where time, not money is the scarce resource.


Motivation and Incentives

Some companies still use a carrot and stick approach to motivate their staff, despite the ample evidence stating that monetary rewards do not enhance intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).

Interestingly, the latest research has found that the process of how compensation is determined and communicated may indeed be a motivating factor (Olafsen, Forest, Halvari, & Deci, 2015). As it turns out, perceived fairness at work may be a better determinant of job satisfaction than the actual salary.

Furthermore, the study found a positive correlation between the need for competence, autonomy and relatedness and an employee’s intrinsic work motivation. Hence, staff need to feel they have what it takes to be successful in the job, they need to be able to work independently and they need to have a bond with some of their co-workers to experience job satisfaction.

Instead of offering financial rewards, organisations should strive to improve what really matters to employees in order to increase their intrinsic motivation. This is at the heart of Daniel Pink’s research, which found autonomy, mastery, and purpose to be positively correlated with performance and job satisfaction (2009).

Pink (2009) claims that extrinsic incentives are bad drivers of motivation as they narrow focus and block creativity. They may work in situations where jobs require mechanical skills and are based on a simple set of rules, but with jobs requiring cognitive skills, it is intrinsic motivation which drives action.



In summary, it may still be a while until we understand why we want what we want. In the meantime, we are well on our way to understanding what drives our motivation and how we can motivate ourselves and others towards a happier, more satisfied and successful life.

How do you motivate yourself and others? Share your stories with us in the comment box below.

Want to learn more about the right and wrong way to motivate?

Watch Daniel Pink’s TEDtalk and get motivated the right way!

Continue reading on flow:

Achor, S. (2011). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. London, UK: Random House.

Ball, B. (2012). A summary of motivation theories  Retrieved 20.05., 2016, from

Baumeister, R. F. (2016). Toward a general theory of motivation: Problems, challenges, opportunities, and the big picture. Springer Science and Business Medie New York, 40, 1-10.

Boehm, J. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Does Happiness Promote Career Success? Journal of Career Assessment, 16(101).

Cabanas, E., & Sánchez-González, J.-C. (2016). Inverting the pyramid of needs: Positive psychology’s new order for labor success. Psicothema, 28(2), 107-113.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy? American Psychologist Association, 54(10), 821-827.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good Business – Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6)(Nov), 627-668.

Olafsen, A. H., Forest, J., Halvari, H., & Deci, E. L. (2015). Show them the money? The role of pay, managerial need support and justice in a self-determination theory model of intrinsic work motivation. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, March.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Shafi, A. A., Khemka, M., & Choudhury, S. R. (2016). A new approach to motivation: Four-drive model. Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment, 26(2), 217-226.

Utman, C. H. (1997). Performance Effects of Motivational State: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1(2), 170-182.

About the Author

Birgit Ohlin, MA, BBA, is a passionate Life Coach and Leadership Consultant who believes in the flow of life. This former Marketing Manager came across Positive Psychology during her Master’s degree and it had a profound effect on her. She since studied Coaching and has turned her focus to innovation, transformation, and change.


  1. Jackie

    Great website! Thank you for sharing this information and your expertise. I’ll be sharing it with others.
    Question – Your website promotes “Download these 3 Positive Psychological Exercises for Free”. However, the URL only go to links where payment is required to go further ( It’s confusing…..just letting you know.
    Thank you for considering this input.
    Best to you all in 2019…

    • Craig Smith

      Hi Jackie, Craig here, thanks for your kind words and feedback. After entering your name and email, the ‘3 Positive Psychological Exercises’ are emailed directly to you. I checked our records and can see the email was delivered on the 15th but not opened. Perhaps it ended up in your spam/junk folder? Just to be sure, I have emailed it to you personally!
      Regarding the payment, this is the welcome offer to purchase 17 “Best of the Best” Positive Psychology Exercises (PDF) for Practitioners. Should you not be interested, you are not obliged in any way, we’re just happy to have you aboard 🙂
      Best wishes for the new year ahead!

  2. George Shining Lyngkhoi

    This is really informative. Congrats and thanks Birgit! It motivates me to look more on the intrinsic motivation. This article will surely enrich many more!

    • Catarina Lino

      George, thank you for your comment. Nothing makes us happier than knowing these resources are valuable to our readers. Have a wonderful day 😉

    • Birgit Ohlin

      Hi George,
      Thanks for letting me know that you enjoyed reading the article. I believe intrinsic motivation is very powerful. Or in the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
      “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
      All the best!

  3. Wanjiku Gichuki

    I really enjoyed reading this article and can relate to it. I have a job that I enjoy a lot but not for the financial reward.
    I have a very supportive boss and great colleagues. The working environment is so great I look forward to going to work. I have previously held other jobs where I made a lot of money but I did not enjoy the working environment.

    • Catarina Lino

      Hey Wanjiku,
      Thank you for sharing that, I can also relate to that experience and feel extra privileged that I now get to do what I love with really amazing people. 😉
      Can you tell us in what ways you contribute to that awesome working environment? The positive attitude is already visible, so keep it up!

    • Birgit Ohlin

      Hi Wanjiku,
      Thanks for sharing your experience with us! I’m glad you enjoy working in your current job. I believe we can only be truly successful if we love what we do. Your boss and work mates are very fortunate to have you on the team!

    • Catarina Lino

      Glad you enjoyed it Alan, Birgit did a wonderful job 😉

    • Birgit Ohlin

      Thanks so much for your feedback Alan, I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂


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