Intermediate polars (IPs) are cataclysmic variables with mildly magnetized white dwarfs (WDs). This analysis of the long-term optical activity of five examples of IPs with accretion discs used data from the Catalina Real-time Transient Survey, Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard (DASCH) and the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). It is shown that each of these IPs had their most preferred value of absolute magnitude Mopt, even if it significantly varied on the superorbital time-scale. The values of Mopt of these IPs were in the zone of thermal-viscous instability (TVI) of the disc most of the time. The properties of a series of outbursts of V426 Oph can be explained by an intermittently operating TVI. The activity of TV Col and DW Cnc is interpreted as caused by a gradually variable mass inflow rate from the secondary to a cool disc. The mass transfer rate from the secondary varied on a well-determined time-scale. It is shown that Mopt of EI UMa, close to the peaks of outbursts of non-magnetic dwarf novae, fluctuated on the time-scale of days; it also produced short flares, ascribed to the bursts of matter from the donor. HY Leo, with a presumably cool disc, fluctuated between its high and low states. A temporary brightening from an extended low state is ascribed to a short, intense burst of matter from the donor to the remaining cool disc or torus.