Have you ever thought about why you do what you do? If you overthink it, you can come up with all kinds of reasons. When you simplify them, you’ll probably notice that most of those reasons tie into the concept of pleasure.
Humans are motivated by pleasure and reward. But then how do we harness the motivation to do things that aren’t inherently pleasurable, like running a marathon or tackling a grueling project at work?
Pleasure and Reward-Driven Motivation
To understand what motivates you, it helps to know how your brain codes and processes rewards. Whenever you do anything, such as perform an activity or feel a sensation, the information is transported through your central nervous system via neurotransmitters.
Those neurotransmitters are chemicals that your body makes to serve as messengers. When neurotransmitters bind to receptors in different areas of the brain, they produce distinct effects.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is most often associated with motivation. Before scientists discovered the way that dopamine works, though, they still understood that motivation had to do with pleasure and reward.
Operant Conditioning and Motivation
In the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner did research on positive and negative reinforcement using lab animals. In the “Skinner Box,” rodents would be rewarded with food or water for pressing a certain lever. If they pressed a different lever, they would be punished by an electric shock.
The animals quickly learned which lever to press and which to avoid. Skinner was even able to show how superstitions can be explained by this type of conditioning. In one experiment, food was dispensed to birds at regular intervals, regardless of the animals’ behavior. If the birds were engaged in a particular activity when they received the food, they were more likely to take those actions again.
One bird would turn counter-clockwise in the hopes of getting more food. Another would push its head into a corner of the cage. Others took on various behaviors that were associated with the food being dispensed.
Humans do the same thing. If something good comes from your behavior, you’re going to want to do it again. That’s one of the simplest ways to explain motivation.
Brain-Derived vs. Actual Rewards
At the time, Skinner didn’t have the advanced brain scanning equipment to explore what was going on in these animals’ minds. But experiments conducted by James Olds and Peter Milner in the 1950s demonstrated the power of the reward circuit in the brain.
Instead of giving animals food when they pressed a lever, these researchers stimulated the pleasure center in their brains with a deeply placed electrode. The rodents would press the lever up to 7,000 times an hour to get the feel-good response.
When they had the option to press a lever to receive food when they were hungry or water when they were thirsty, the rats still preferred to go directly to the lever that stimulated the reward circuits in their brains. In fact, they had to be disengaged from the electrodes so that they wouldn’t die from self-inflicted starvation.
Similar experiments have been performed on humans with comparable results. When given the chance, humans will choose pleasure, even if it means giving up everything else in life.
We now know that variations in dopamine levels cause these responses. When the animals would get food after pressing a lever, the pleasurable consequence led to a surge of dopamine, which runs along the reward pathways of the brain.
This works the same way in humans. If you do something that feels good, you’re likely to try it again. If you keep getting the same positive response, you’re probably going to keep doing the behavior.
This explains why people go shopping, have sex and eat comfort food. It also clarifies why some individuals take drugs to the point of destroying their health. These activities lead to a dopamine release, which quickly solidifies the habit, a phenomenon known as operant conditioning.
How Does Dopamine Affect Motivation?
Dopamine has long been referred to as the “pleasure chemical.” However, it’s not exactly the same as happiness. It doesn’t necessarily make you feel joy when your phone buzzes. It does, however, encourage you to check that notification.
Researchers are learning that dopamine is more related to motivation than to pleasure. When animals are given drugs that neutralize dopamine cells, they still enjoy inherently pleasurable things, such as consuming sugar water. But they won’t be inspired to seek it out.
There are two theories for why this is the case. One says that dopamine is a response to a prediction error. In other words, the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are triggered when something happens that’s better than what you predicted. Because the result was more rewarding than you expected, you’re motivated to take on the same behavior.
This idea is tied to the expectancy theory of motivation, which suggests that people are more motivated when they predict that the results of their behavior will deliver desirable consequences.
The other theory is that dopamine energizes you toward a particular objective. The neurotransmitter’s involvement in motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease supports this theory. When brain cells that produce dopamine in the substantia nigra area of the brain start to die, people experience the tremors and coordination problems that are associated with Parkinson’s.
On the other hand, drugs that stimulate dopamine production, such as amphetamines and cocaine, can also improve your physical performance. Dopamine may give you the get-up-and-go that’s necessary for motivation.
To put it more accurately, dopamine is responsible for humans wanting something. It doesn’t really control whether you like something. The neurotransmitter performs its duties before you feel the rewards. That means that its true responsibility is to encourage you to act.
Can You Hack Your Dopamine?
Now that you know a little bit more about dopamine, we’re going to offer some motivation examples that will elevate your levels of this neurotransmitter. The idea is that if you can boost your dopamine flow, you can enhance your motivation.
When you lack motivation, you might think that you’re deficient in willpower. The fact is that you might actually just need a dose of dopamine. When you set goals, your dopamine levels are usually high. They plummet as you experience frustration or boredom as you move toward your objectives, which is why you may veer off track.
Anything that activates the reward pathways in your brain can help you hack your dopamine and get motivated. We have included some examples below.
Checking Off Items on a To-Do List
FacileThings says that when your brain acknowledges that you have completed an undertaking, it releases an abundance of dopamine. You’ll want to extend that satisfying feeling by continuing to complete everything on your to-do list.
But this isn’t the best way to boost your productivity because you will naturally gravitate toward the smaller, easier items on the list just to get your dopamine going. That’s why you might feel productive when you fill your day with “busy work” even though you haven’t really completed anything substantial.
Tackling the bigger projects, however, requires more complex work. You might get frustrated before you have a chance to reap the rewards.
To hack your motivation, try breaking down huge projects into micro-tasks. These small increments of work will help you complete the task when you do them back to back. The key is to write down the micro-tasks on a piece of paper so that you can check them off. When you do, you’ll stay motivated to finish the larger objective.
Whenever you feel like your motivation is waning because something seems too difficult, complicated or overwhelming, split it into doable segments so that you can keep your dopamine levels high.
Ask for Praise
It’s no surprise that praise and recognition make us feel good. That’s because your brain releases a surge of dopamine when you receive a compliment. Because the flood of dopamine is short-lived, though, you need to get positive feedback regularly to stay motivated.
This creates a feedback loop that can help you maintain your momentum. When you do something that begets praise, you get the rush of reward, making you want to do it again. You’re likely to be commended regularly if you keep doing good work.
Research shows that employees whose efforts are recognized consistently are more productive and engaged. However, only genuine praise is effective for enhancing motivation. Unearned praise may cause people to continue doing mediocre work. Moreover, when someone praises you for being good at something, you’re less likely to adopt new challenges than when they commend you for your effort.
Asking for feedback when you know that you’ve worked hard can help you stay motivated to do the same level of work the next time. If you’re in a leadership position, you can motivate a team by offering genuine, consistent praise.
Do Something New
Seeking out novel experiences is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, changing our typical routine can feel difficult. On the other hand, doing new things is exhilarating.
Novelty is related to learning. If everything were always capturing our attention, we would be overstimulated. Therefore, our brains store things in the “familiar” category fairly quickly so that we don’t become overwhelmed. When we encounter something new, we are primed for learning.
We also get an outpouring of dopamine in the area of the brain related to learning and rewards. That makes us want to go exploring so that we can seek out a reward.
The dopamine rush that’s associated with novelty explains why we stay motivated to play a video game for another hour after we unlock a new level. When we face a new experience, we anticipate a reward, which is inherently motivating.
Moving your body is a sure way to get some dopamine flowing. If you need to muster up some motivation to study for a test or finish an assignment at work, try going for a 30-minute jog or doing some burpees before you start. You’ll rev up your motivation chemicals and keep up your momentum.
It’s interesting that exercise can inspire you to take care of other obligations in your life because so many people need the motivation to work out. If you tell yourself that the exercise is going to bring you rewards in many areas, you might be more enthused about it.
We’ll talk about motivation and exercise further when we discuss survival-based motivation.
Motivation to Avoid Pain
You might think that a dopamine drop could negatively affect your mood, motivating you to look for a more rewarding activity. However, when your dopamine drops, so does your motivation. But if you’re trying to avoid a painful experience, your motivation surges again. The pain-pleasure theory of motivation proposes that people are just as driven to avoid pain as they are to seek out pleasure.
One model of the pain-pleasure theory indicates that there are multiple levels of pleasure, and you can plateau at each stage because of the additional effort is necessary to reach the next stage. If you get stuck at a particular spot, you either develop anxiety because of it or put out more effort to move further.
That explains why you may feel so frustrated when you don’t feel like you’re moving forward in life. You may believe that you’re not capable of exerting the effort that it takes to accomplish greatness. But if you don’t try, you can end up feeling worried and depressed.
That might be enough to propel you forward. However, when you’re depressed, your dopamine level drops. You know what that means; you lose motivation. That’s one reason that depression can make it hard for someone to get out of bed. It drains your dopamine and, subsequently, your drive.
Is Fear a Motivation Example?
Avoiding mental anguish isn’t always enough to motivate you, but it can be a potent stimulus. One of the most painful forms of psychological distress is fear.
Here are some examples of the ways that people are motivated by fear:
- If you’re afraid of living in poverty, you might have a strong work ethic and pursue an exciting career.
- If you’re afraid of losing your good health, you might be motivated to exercise and eat healthfully.
- If you’re afraid of losing a loved one, you might go out of your way to help them out.
- If you’re afraid of losing your good reputation, you might pay extra attention to detail in the work that you do.
- If you’re afraid of rejection, you might put extra effort into nurturing your relationships.
- If you’re afraid of the unknown, you might strive to be as prepared as possible.
- If you’re afraid of missing an opportunity, you might be especially diligent about trying new things and accepting offers.
Are you motivated or paralyzed by fear? The answer depends on your personality.
Researchers have found that people who are obsessively passionate and defensive will do anything to avoid failure. Making errors threatens their sense of self. Those types of people react to that threat by improving their performance.
People who focus more on the journey and aren’t so concerned with their self-image or potential to make mistakes won’t necessarily change their performance in the face of setbacks.
Some types of people want to avoid negativity so much that they act like a deer in headlights when they’re faced with any danger. In these cases, avoidance of fear usually motivates them to maintain the status quo at all costs.
In sum, fear can be a potent driving force for behavior. Some say that fear is the most powerful motivator of all. But it’s usually a negative motivator.
You can use fear constructively if you don’t freeze in the face of it. Here are some ways to shift your mindset to use fear to motivate you in a positive way:
- Fear means something significant is going to happen – Primitive humans used fear to alert them to danger. It was a survival mechanism. Nowadays, most of our fears are emotional and related to perceived, not actual, threats. However, fear usually means that something is going to change, and change equals growth.
- Get comfortable with discomfort – The type of fear that modern people usually experience is intensely uncomfortable. But it’s not dangerous. You can become friends with fear by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations more often. Stepping out of your comfort zone makes you more adaptable and less sensitive to fear.
- Reframe fear – When you feel scared, ask yourself if your fear is indicating that your survival is threatened. If not, you can reframe it. The same neurotransmitters that produce fear emotions also responsible for making you feel excited. If you look at fear as a different version of excitement, you may be more likely to take steps to produce a positive outcome.
No Pain, No Gain?
Motivation can make you move forward. It can also prevent you from falling behind. In most cases, using avoidance of pain as a motivator isn’t as fulfilling.
When you’re determined to follow a desire, you are trying to make things better. You’re not concerned about losing something. When you’re just trying to prevent pain, you usually end up doing something that you’re supposed to do as opposed to something that you’re passionate about.
The same activity can have two different motivators, depending on the person. For example, one college student will study to get good grades because she is excited about her future career possibilities. The reward that she expects to receive from finding a career that she loves and being able to support herself gives her a dopamine surge.
Another student might try to get good grades to avoid disappointing his parents. When his grades suffer, his parents are angry and hassle him about studying harder. He begrudgingly does his work, wishing that he could be doing anything else at the same time.
When you’re motivated to avoid pain, you don’t necessarily gain. You might just stay in the same place.
When you’re motivated because you’re going to gain a reward, you won’t necessarily lose out if you avoid taking on the task. You’ll probably just maintain the status quo if you don’t move forward with a “gain” behavior.
As you can see, you end up putting in a lot more effort to stay in the same place if you’re motivated by avoiding pain instead of seeking gain. It’s the difference between playing defense and offense. Both are necessary sometimes, but you tend to cover more ground by being proactive.
Survival-Based Motivation Examples
We’ve discussed the complex concepts of pleasure and pain and how they relate to motivation. But at the most basic level, people are programmed to survive.
Instinct Theory of Motivation
Instinct theory says that all animals within the same species are driven by the same instinctual motivators. Instinct theory was developed by psychologist William McDougall. He said that instinctual forces that involved fear, love, anger, shame and hygiene were driving forces of motivation. Sigmund Freud limited those forces to life and death.
There are four elements to survival motives. These include:
- Physical survival – Motives related to getting food, air, water, and shelter
- Sexual survival – Motives related to factors that revolve around gender identity, pleasure and reproduction
- Territorial survival – Motives related to your profession, home life and income
- Spiritual survival – Motives related to love, fulfillment and purpose
You could argue that there is an element of pleasure in each of these elements.
Why You’re Not Motivated to Exercise
Did you know that you were born to run? Our short toes and heel bones as well as ability to sweat to cool off prime us for endurance exercise. But humans have also evolved to rest as much as possible.
In the days of hunter-gatherers, people had to conserve their energy because food was not always available. They couldn’t go off for a jog and come back hungry when there were few resources. That’s one explanation for why you always feel like you have to force yourself to exercise even though you know how good it feels.
Your Needs Produce Your Motivation
Whether you’re trying to survive or just be happy, your needs influence your motivation. You need to eat to stay alive. You need to earn money to pay for groceries.
But not all needs are biological. Some are emotional. Your needs may also change throughout your life. As you fulfill one need, another one usually arises. For example, you might need to get good grades to graduate from college. After you do, you need to get some work experience to build up your resume.
If your needs are not met, you may or may not remain motivated. You might improve your performance to meet the need. You may also be motivated to try a different path.
Many of the things that you think you need aren’t physical or psychological; they’re learned. They’re the things that you believe are necessary for your survival or happiness. But they’re not always as crucial as you think.
When you’re feeling unmotivated, you might need to take a deeper look at your needs and desires. You might find that you’ve been lying to yourself about what you thought you needed. We often adopt others’ needs as our own to please people (or avoid pain). Understanding what we really want out of life can motivate us because it encourages us to act according to our customized plan.
All of our needs aren’t created equally, though. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who believed that we have different levels of needs. They are arranged like a pyramid. He said that humans couldn’t move up the pyramid until each lower level was satisfied.
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people need to satisfy their requirements in the following order:
- Physiological (a basic need)
- Safety (a basic need)
- Belonging (a psychological need)
- Esteem (a psychological need)
- Self-actualization (a self-fulfillment need)
For example, if you don’t have a place to live, you probably won’t be as motivated to seek recognition at work or explore your creative expression until you satisfy your basic survival need.
What are some examples of ways that you can improve your motivation using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? When you’re entering the workforce, you might be more interested in earning a steady income than finding the perfect job. If you don’t find a position that pays you adequately, you may continually search for a job that provides better pay at the expense of securing an occupation that’s ideal for you.
Recognizing what’s missing can help you fill in the missing pieces when you lack motivation. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight but not motivated to eat healthy food, it could be because you’re starving yourself. Your brain is trying to tell you to fuel your body, and then it can help you think up some creative and nourishing meal ideas.
All in all, the perfect motivation example is something that boosts dopamine levels, pleases you and satisfies your needs. It sounds so easy. Now that you know what contributes to your motivation, it’s time to take some action!