top of page

Unlocking Emotional Well-being: The Power of Intrinsic Rewards and Their Impact on Mental Health

Beth Bradford

9/22/23, 2:21 PM

It's not all about the money.

Imagine sitting on a beach, watching a magnificent orange-red sunset. Or perhaps you're nestled in a comfy chair, engrossed in an enthralling novel. Maybe you're out in nature, exploring a serene forest, or simply enjoying a delightful piece of art. These activities, while not leading to tangible benefits like money or fame, bring us joy. They are intrinsically rewarding - rewarding in their own right. But what does this mean for our mental health? A study published in Nature Mental Health may have some answers.

This research, conducted by researchers at University College London, Centre d’Economie de la Sorbonne, and MIT, delves into the concept of intrinsic rewards. The researchers identified a variety of activities that humans find inherently fulfilling. These included visual stimuli (like watching a sunset), cognitive tasks (such as solving crossword puzzles), and social interactions. But here's the intriguing part: they found that all these diverse intrinsic rewards triggered the same kind of responses as monetary rewards.

The researchers conducted a factor analysis, which is a statistical method that allows researchers to identify patterns or factors that explain the variance in a set of observed variables. Surprisingly, they found that around 40% of the behavior variance was explained by a single factor: sensitivity to all rewards except anything that might be neutral.

So, what does sensitivity to rewards mean? It's basically how receptive you are to rewards, whether it's money, a lovely sunset, or an intriguing puzzle. Some people might be more sensitive to rewards than others, and this can noticeably affect their behavior.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting. The study found that individual differences in reward sensitivity were significantly associated with affective aspects of mental health. In simpler terms, how sensitive you are to intrinsic rewards could be linked to your emotional well-being.

But it's not all rewards that matter here. The researchers found that this association was primarily driven by sensitivity to intrinsic rewards, rather than monetary ones. This means that being responsive to the joy derived from activities like reading a good book or enjoying a piece of art could be more important for emotional health than the pleasure obtained from monetary rewards.

In conclusion, the study proposes that our sensitivity to intrinsic rewards - those little joys we derive from various activities - could play a significant role in our mental health. So, the next time you're watching a sunset or engrossed in a captivating novel, remember: these activities are not just pleasant pastimes. They could be contributing to your emotional well-being in ways you might not have realized!

bottom of page