Saturday, October 17, 2009

Following After Rewards

“to the humble and faithful, to those with compunction and devotion, to those anointed ‘with the oil of gladness,’ to the lovers of divine wisdom who are enflamed with its desire, to those wanting to be free to magnify the Lord, to be in awe of him, and even to taste him.” ~ Bonaventure (from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism)

PsyBlog has an interesting article on how rewards can have a negative impact on motivation. The article points to research that shows that when people are engaged in an activity they like, their interest in continuing that activity will diminish as soon as they start to expect a reward for doing it. At first this seems counterintuitive. Surely, if you like doing something and you get a reward for it, that should increase motivation. Shouldn’t it?

The problem is that when rewards are introduced, it doesn’t so much add motivation as shift it from one location to another. That is, an activity that used to be fueled by an intrinsic motivation—you just liked doing it—is now driven my extrinsic motivation—the external reward. In other words, pleasure becomes associated less with simply doing a particular activity, and becomes attached to the reward itself.

The authors of the article suggest some other reasons to be wary of rewards:

“Not only this but rewards are dangerous for another reason: because they remind us of obligations, of being made to do things we don't want to do. Children are given rewards for eating all their food, doing their homework or tidying their bedrooms. So rewards become associated with painful activities that we don't want to do. The same goes for grown-ups: money becomes associated with work and work can be dull, tedious and painful. So when we get paid for something we automatically assume that the task is dull, tedious and painful—even when it isn't.”

Back in July when I entered into the Beliefnet blogging contest, I did so because I loved writing, and I loved exploring the idea of God and of religion. It was a chance for me to engage in the “love of divine wisdom.” It was for me a form of prayer and devotion, a way to focus my thoughts and feelings about God, not to mention a chance to think about and share my enthusiasm for the works of people like Rilke, Rumi, Abraham Heschel, Carl Jung, Paul Tillich, and Alan Watts. A chance to dive into the scriptures of the Great Traditions and be enlivened and enriched.

I was honored and excited to win the contest. It was truly a thrill. It is a great gift to be recognized for doing something that you love to do. It is a great need that we all have to be seen, to be given some kind of positive mirroring, to have the things we offer be received and welcomed. I will always be grateful that I had a moment of having those needs met through the writing of this blog.

But rewards also have consequences.

Somewhere along the way, my enthusiasm for writing was overshadowed by my concern for the aftermath of the contest. Where was the blog being promoted? For how long? The fact that it was being promoted at all created such a pressure to come up with new material that my inspiration all but dried up. Then the blog stopped being promoted and my desire to write all but vanished. A lot of this was exacerbated by some miscommunication with the Beliefnet staff, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, left me feeling hurt, abandoned, and a little resentful. (This has all been cleared up, by the way. The people that I have dealt with at Beliefnet have been very helpful, very professional, and very gracious. I’m aware that the feelings I experienced are in large part due to my own psychology, of which I’ll spare you the details.) In short, my thoughts and feelings about this blog became distorted and disconnected from the simple joy I experienced when I first started writing it.

And that brings me to the quote from the mystic, Bonaventure, with which I prefaced this post. When I read this quote it reminded me of the things that initially inspired me to write. These posts are my acts of devotion, and this quote highlights all the qualities that I want to be present in my writing – humility, joy, desire, freedom, and awe. I want this blog to “magnify the Lord,” and, yes, I hope through my writing “even to taste him.”

And so I rededicate myself to writing as an act of love, as an act of devotion, as an act of prayer, and as an act of play. I want to remember the intrinsic pleasure that I get from engaging in these extended meditations and allow that to be my motivation to create. Of course, I still like recognition and I still like rewards. But I believe the true “oil of gladness” with which we are anointed comes from within, and being connected to the world within, teaches Jung, gives a person dignity and certainty in this life.

That said, I still want you to like it.

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