Rudolf Flesch is the man who wrote Why Johnny Can't Read; some thirty years later he wrote a follow-up, Why Johnny Still Can't Read. His premise was simple: teaching reading by phonics, rather than what he called the "look-and-say" method, is valid and appropriate even for a language as allegedly inconsistent as English. In the second book, he mentioned his dismay over a motivational technique that involved essentially bribing kids for reading well. Reading, he argued, should be (and is) its own reward.
The idea that anything should be its own reward is actually a cornerstone of Zen as well. You don't sit zazen to get some nebulous reward sometime far off in the future; you do it because sitting zazen is its own accomplishment. Practicing zazen encourages you to believe that much more in what the present moment offers, which is really all there is. The past is fiction; the future is a nebulous promise. The more equipped you are to accept what is right in front of you now, the better.
People tend to react in one of two ways when presented with all this. Either they gag on it — the more honest reaction, if you ask me — or they nod and admit that I've made a good point, and go on being frustrated by the fact that they didn't catch the last bus. I'd rather someone choke on the idea than simply let it pass through their system, but that's another essay.
My larger point is that we live in a world where very little of anything in itself constitutes its own reward, so it becomes terribly easy to pay lip service to the idea. Some of that is inevitable, I guess, when you live in a world where money greases so many of the wheels (cue the Marxist theories about capital and the alienation of the worker and all that foofaraw). But I suspect the big culprit is personal motives.
We don't look all that closely at what sorts of messy needs for approval are pumping away beneath casual behaviors. We're not in the habit of dissecting our motives that closely. Most of the time, whatever feels like the right thing is the right thing to us, and that's good enough. That allows us to gloss over how much peer pressure, and peer approval, play into what we do.
Society is glued together by approval, so a certain amount of mutual approbation has to take place — and a certain amount of kowtowing to fashion, as per William Graham Sumner's notes on the subject. And not all of this is bad. Some things in life are just that much more enjoyable when done with others.
But the key revelation for me in all this is that you should never do do anything just because you want to get patted on the back for it. Getting paid is one thing, but getting flattered is another. The amount of time you spend doing it, vs. the amount of time you get patted on the back, are so disproportionate that it's not worth it. And if things can't be their own reward anyway, what's worth doing in the first place? Not a whole lot.