“Do what you love for a living, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” they say.
It’s snappy. Inspirational. And that’s a big reason I imagine that the saying is so popular.
But when it comes to the actual science behind motivation, it turns out it’s not true at all.
Instead, there’s another statement that’s a lot more true: “Do what you love for a living and you’ll like it less.”
Well, that doesn’t make any sense, does it? How could that be true? Well, it turns out there’s a little something called overjustification effect you have to look out for.
What is Overjustification Effect?
So what is overjustification effect? Overjustification effect is a phenomenon that has been observed over and over again in research in which a person finds that their intrinsic motivation (natural emotional/internal desire or drive) to perform a task diminishes because they receive an external reward for it.
One example of external reward could be getting paid for doing the task. Which is literally what happens when something becomes your full-time job and you earn your living that way.
Combatting Overjustification Effect
Well, great. When you start doing your dream job, it becomes less enjoyable? That’s kind of depressing news.
And I can tell you that there’s some truth here. When I went from writing part time for enjoyment to doing it for my job, I definitely felt an appreciable shift. (One that wasn’t exactly positive.)
But I can tell you — both informed by the available research on the topic and my own personal experience in the realm — that overjustification effect is something that can be overcome (at least partially).
I’ll admit that it took me longer to get the hang of it in practice than it seemed like it would in theory. But here’s essentially what you need to do: Feed your intrinsic motivation. This means that you have to get back in touch with what is actually fun or enjoyable for you about the task — independent of the reward.
Essentially, you have to find ways to make your job fun again.
What this looks like is entirely individual and depends on what you actually liked about the activity.
But it is 100% the key to combatting overjustification effect.
I can tell you from personal experience it’s never quite as rosy as “Do what you love for a living, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but with cleverness, creativity, and persistence, you will be a far cry from ‘”Do what you love for a living and you’ll like it less.”
There are countless studies on overjustification effect. Overjustification effect has an illustrious history in empirical research and has been found and studied many times. At this point it’s less a matter of if overjustification effect exists — and more how it operates and what its effects are mediated by (and its real world applications). Those who are interested in looking for a good selection of classical and modern references would do well to reference this classical study full text study from 1973 and this meta-analysis from 2017 as well as the works cited in its introductory review of the available literature.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.