Motivation happens when dopamine (the feel good chemical in our brain) spikes because we anticipate something important is about to happen. Dopamine can create feelings of alertness and wakefulness. Unlike animals such as monkeys, humans can keep dopamine levels up for decades and decades in anticipation of a reward. When we believe strongly in the reward, dopamine will continue to be released, which keeps us motivated. It encourages us to act to achieve something we perceive to be good or avoid something bad.
Everyone can recognise in themselves what a huge difference being motivated makes: you confront challenges with energy, you sail through routine tasks, you stay calm under pressure, you come up with solutions to problems. It would make sense then to take some time to figure out how we arrived at this feeling, what is driving it and how we can prolong it.
Long term motivation is defined by a strong sense of meaning. Money, success, fame, status and power motivate but they do not sustain motivation in the same way that meaning does. When we refer to 'meaning', we are largely referring to the belief that through our actions we are helping others improve their lives. It is a connection with something good. For this reason the ultimate source of motivation is found in a meaningful pursuit. The beauty of this is that meaning exists in everything we do, be it flying rockets to space or scrubbing our bathroom tiles. These actions can both contribute to the greater good. That means, when we 'search' for motivation what we really should be 'searching' for is meaning.
Optimism, hope, curiosity, fear, anger, failure, achievement, success, pride, vengeful (revenge), redemption, power, control, freedom, appreciated, love, lust, addiction, obsession, enthusiastic, energised, clarity
What you can do that helps
- Setting small goals: Goals to get motivated seem to be synonymous with aiming high but our brain doesn’t always like that. Making a drastic change is tough to start and even tougher to sustain. Identify the smallest change you can make. For example, the end goal may be to lose 20kg, that can start by setting a goal to spread less butter on your toast tomorrow morning. A tiny change can plant a seed that grows naturally.
- Motivation feeds off progress: Setting incremental goals will make progress more obvious in our mind. Each time we complete a step and meet a challenge a positive reinforcement loop takes place which signals the release of dopamine to keep going. You could set a goal anchored in your existing behaviour to make this easier for you. For example, every morning you wake up and have a shower. A goal could be to finish the shower with 30 seconds of cold water.
Wishing you well on your wellbeing journey!