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Use Intrinsic Motivation to Spark a Happy Retirement

By Carol Benton June 16, 2022 Mindset

Oh, the joys of retirement! No bosses or supervisors, no deadlines, no meetings or annual reports! What a luxury to find yourself with endless hours of free time and nobody telling you what to do.

I’ve been retired from my full-time career for four years, now, and I love it! In retirement, I find reduced stress and responsibilities along with a new sense of freedom.

Although the freedom to float along on a cloud of relaxation is tempting, I find that I do want to stay active in retirement. I do sense a desire to pursue learning goals and to work on interesting projects. Relaxation is fine, but I don’t want to turn into a hopeless couch potato.

Are you retired or approaching retirement? Like me, you probably want to stay active and growing mentally, physically, and spiritually during retirement. After all, we worked hard for many years to reach this golden opportunity. We don’t want to squander it.

Retirement: Time for Self-Direction

With freedom from the responsibilities of a fulltime job, we find ourselves in need of self-direction. We no longer have a boss or a paycheck motivating us to be productive. We need to find motivation within ourselves.

That’s why it’s worth exploring the idea of motivation.

  • What is motivation?
  • How does it work?
  • Are there different types of motivation?
  • What type of motivation can we employ to create a happy retirement?

Two Types of Motivation

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines two main types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. We experience extrinsic motivation when we do something to receive an external reward, such as a paycheck, praise from the boss, or validation as the family breadwinner.

On the other hand, we experience intrinsic motivation when we do something because of an internal reward such as pleasure, enjoyment, or enthusiastic interest in the activity.

When we’re employed in a career, we experience external motivation in the form of financial security, prestige, and the ability to honor commitments to our families.

After we retire, we no longer have external pressure from a boss to work on projects and meet deadlines. Instead, we’re free to set our own goals. We can use intrinsic motivation to keep ourselves on track and move forward to meet exciting, new challenges.

How Intrinsic Motivation Works

When you’re intrinsically motivated to do something, you feel fascinated by the activity and feel pleasure to be engaged in it. Your incentive to do the activity comes from these internal feelings, not from a hope for external rewards.

Some psychologists give the name flow to this pleasurable state of being. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes flow in this way:

“The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be…”

Intrinsic motivation causes you to do activities that you enjoy in the moment. Sometimes we confuse extrinsic motivation with intrinsic motivation. Two types of extrinsic motivation might appear (on the surface) to be intrinsic.

Identified Extrinsic Motivation

Identified extrinsic motivation causes us to act in a certain way because of an important value or belief that we hold on a personal level.

For example, I try to make my bed every day because my mother taught me from early childhood that it’s important to keep my house in order.

Integrated Extrinsic Motivation

Integrated extrinsic motivation is an incentive to behave in a certain way because of values and beliefs that are part of an over-arching network of personally held principles and commitments.

One example is: I attend worship services at a church because of spiritual beliefs and values. These extend to a network of guiding principles and commitments to the larger community.

You can see from my examples that these types of motivation appear to come from within, but they are actually internalized types of extrinsic motivation.

Put Intrinsic Motivation to Work for You

I remember the adrenaline rush of hurtling downhill on my bicycle at age nine. On summer evenings, I’d join the neighborhood kids to ride pell-mell down our street. What a glorious sense of freedom!

Time stood still and the world consisted of just us, our bikes, our street, and the emerging, magical lightning bugs. That’s the kind of scene I conjure when I think of flow or intrinsic motivation.

Now, I think of different types of intrinsically motivating activities. In retirement, reading good literature and puttering in my yard seem to fill the bill just fine, thank you.

If you want to use intrinsic motivation to enrich your retirement experience, you might want to start by brainstorming a list of activities that would be intrinsically motivating to you.

Here’s my list:

  • Reading good books by excellent authors
  • Crafts – making DIY jewelry, wreaths, decoupaging
  • Music – singing, playing the piano and organ
  • Exercise – walking, jogging, stretching
  • Lifelong learning – taking courses online or at the local senior learning center
  • Gardening
  • Traveling
  • Solving puzzles: jigsaw, crosswords, and Sudoku

Set Goals for Life Enrichment

After you make a list of things that are intrinsically motivating to you, use it to set goals for learning new skills or seeking new experiences that give you pleasure.

These are a few of my goals:

  • Travel to places I’ve never seen.
  • Learn new skills for writing and blogging (I’m taking some online courses).
  • Learn new repertoire to play on the piano and organ.
  • Clear out the weedy areas and plant new shrubs in the backyard.
  • Read more good books.

As you can see, my goals are based on the activities that I find intrinsically motivating.

How about you? What motivates you intrinsically? What does your list of intrinsically motivating activities look like? Can you put intrinsic motivation to work in your life? I’d love to read your ideas and learn about your goals. Simply leave a comment below to start a conversation.

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The Author

Carol Benton, B.M.Ed., M.M., D.M.A., is a retired music educator and college professor. In retirement, she continues to work part-time as a church musician along with pursuing a new career in freelance writing. See what Carol’s up to by visiting her blog, Scribbling Boomer, or email Carol at

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