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Why Have Rewards Lost Their Meaning?

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From a young man in Australia: Not a major complication but just interested in some different perspectives. I am a physically healthy late-30 year old man. I do not drink alcohol or smoke, I do not do drugs, I don’t gamble, and I try to avoid eating bad food too often. I exercise regularly and have a pretty good life (married, child, dog, run my own business). I also don’t waste money on buying random stuff to make myself feel rewarded”;.

Everyone I know (literal”ly every human being I know of) rewards themselves by using some of the above (alcohol, drugs, cigerettes, gambling, buying random things etc). I have reached a point where the idea of a reward has just about lost meaning, or brings with it some level of guilt and regret (an unhealthy food binge for example).

Most typical advice talks about going for a walk, or doing some meditation, or whatever as a reward. But those things certainly don’t strike me as party time.

I suppose I don’t really have a question. It’s more of a case of being interested in the feedback on my state of mind. I don’t feel unhappy or unmotivated, I just don’t know where the “reward” is when the typical rewards are things I’m trying to avoid.


Why Have Rewards Lost Their Meaning?

Answered by on -


You are asking a very important question. The reason you find rewards like alcohol and drugs unrewarding is that they are artificial rewards. They have nothing to do with the act that is being rewarded. Thus they ring hollow. Often people keep giving themselves more and more of these phony rewards in an effort to, finally, feel rewarded but they are entirely missing the point.

True gratification comes inherently from being totally and pleasurably involved in what you are doing. Positive Psychologists often quote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who, in 1975, named the ultimate internal gratification as “flow”.  He said, “Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz”. Some people call it being “in the zone”.

Other writers have emphasized that the only true way to positive self-esteem is to do good in the world. Doing good is something to feel good about. Doing good makes people feel good which motivates them to do more good things that contribute to the world.

Nathaniel Branden, author of The Six Pillars Self-Esteem, said “How do we keep our inner fire alive? Two things at minimum are needed: An ability to appreciate the positives in our life — and a commitment to action.” That “inner fire” is the reward that matters.

I’m sure you have at some time in your life experienced this, You get so into what you’re doing that time flies, you feel great, you get something accomplished that really matters to you. It’s a better high than any drug or drink or party can provide.

My advice to you is to stop worrying about whether others are getting rewards you are not getting by partying. You aren’t missing a thing. Shoot for the inner satisfaction and gratification that is available to all of us if we stop looking outside of ourselves for rewards and instead do the things that make life joyful.

I wish you well,

Dr. Marie

Why Have Rewards Lost Their Meaning?

Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Dr. Marie is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2019). Why Have Rewards Lost Their Meaning?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Sep 2019 (Originally: 7 Sep 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Sep 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.