Personal initiative is a proactive and goal-oriented mindset, characterized by long-term focus and persistence in the face of obstacles and setbacks.  Such a mindset is action-oriented, planful, and anticipatory: quickly turning goals into actions - with back-up plans ready just in case. Unsurprisingly, personal initiative is associated with goal achievement (Frese and Fay, 2001).  For instance, recent studies in Africa found that small business owners who completed personal initiative training achieved much greater business success over a two-year period than owners assigned to a no-training control group or who had completed a conventional business course (Campos, Frese et al, 2017).

Individuals high in personal initiative also tend to be happier (Jostman, Koole et al, 2005). The link between personal initiative and well-being is partly a matter of being better at riding the ups and downs of goal pursuit. For one thing, anticipating potential setbacks is likely to make actual setbacks less serious and less upsetting. For another, being action- and goal-focused means quicker rebound from feeling frustrated or discouraged.

But the connection with well-being is deeper than being better at regulating emotions. It has to do with factors that contribute to happiness. Personal initiative is killed without these "feeder streams" of happiness, which include:

Sense of control: you can actually change a situation

Sense of purpose: you're motivated to achieve your goals

Self-efficacy: you're pretty confident you can do what's needed to get closer to your goals

Sense of progress: you are moving forward and getting closer to your goals

Challenge: the reward is often in the overcoming  

Bureaucratic work environments can undermine personal initiative by prioritizing rules, procedures, and protocols over creative problem-solving.  In these environments, being adequate gets rewarded with predictable raises while going above the call of duty may very well be punished by resentful co-workers. Do what you’re asked and avoid trouble. Unfortunately, a recipe for diminished well-being. 

And there's plenty of research to back me up on this. For instance, individuals who favor "avoidance goals" tend to feel less in control, less satisfied with their progress, and less competent than individuals with lots of "approach goals".  In other words, their happiness feeder streams have become mere trickles. No wonder so many government workers seem vaguely depressed.

Note: This post contains parts of two prior posts: What Kills Personal Initiative and Why Should We Care, Part I and What Kills Personal Initiative and Why Should We Care, Part II.


Campos, F., M. Frese, et al. (2017). "Teaching personal initiative beats traditional training in boosting small business in West Africa." Science 357(6357): 1287-1290.

Elliot, A. J. & Friedman, R. (2007). Approach-avoidance: A central characteristic of personal goals. In B. R. Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S. D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal project pursuit: Goals, actions, and human flourishing (pp. 97-118). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Frese, M., & Fay, D. (2001). Personal initiative (PI): An active performance concept for work in the 21st century. In B.M. Staw & R.M. Sutton (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 23, pp. 133-187). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

Jostmann, N. B., S. L. Koole, et al. (2005). "Subliminal Affect Regulation." European Psychologist 10(3): 209-217.

Pychyl, Timothy A  Approaching Success, Avoiding the Undesired: Does Goal Type Matter?