The Mystery of Human Motivation

By Chandra Chandhok 2021-02-26

I hunched over my scroll, shoulders slouched, head in hands, feather-pen woefully tossed astray. “I simply cannot write a thing!” I cried out to oblivion.

I had spent the morning, and several before that, planted in the very same spot at my desk. For hours, I gazed out the window before me, yearning to join the droves of children frolicking in the grass. Why did this beautiful Grecian weather mock me so? I was trapped inside, and more importantly, trapped in my own mind. 

Once again, I poised the tip of my pen at the page, determined to get started. “Well, there is no way I can be productive while so dehydrated,” I thought to myself, and promptly got up to steep a cup of tea. “Might as well check if I got any mail as long as I’m up,” I rationalized to myself, my feet already steering me out to the lawn. 

Arghhh. This was so frustrating. If this sounds familiar to you, if you’ve left an assignment till the night before, failed to keep a New Year’s Resolution, done everything but the task you know you need to complete, you’re probably a lot like me—unmotivated.

Motivation lies at the heart of behavior. Some psychological research on motivation, and its enemy, one I know all about, procrastination, can help elucidate why we perform a certain behavior, or why we don’t, as the case may be. 

Over the years, neuroscientists and psychologists have established that we generally experience motivation when dopamine—a neurotransmitter that relays signals between brain cells—is released and travels to the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is an area of the brain that mediates reward behavior: So when dopamine reaches the nucleus accumbens, it solicits feedback on whether a good thing or a bad thing is about to happen.

Robert West, a leading British psychologist specializing in the study of motivation, explains that you can take something, not change the objective thing at all, and by giving it a different context or frame, you can make it an entirely different thing in terms of the emotional effect, and therefore the resulting behavior. Our emotional reaction to having to do certain tasks have much more to do with the framing of the task, the environment in which it was prescribed, than with the actual task itself. 

Watch: How to find meaning and joy in life

The elements of the motivation formula are autonomy, mastery, and purpose, a trio that drives, engages, and stimulates us to do our best work. When we feel like we’re in control of our work, have a sense of agency to choose what we want to do and when we are much more likely to feel motivated. 

Next, we want to get better at doing things. It’s why learning a language or an instrument can be so frustrating at first. If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, your interest flags and you may even give up. A sense of progress, not just in our work, but our capabilities, contributes to our inner drive. The best tasks are Goldilocks tasks, ones which are neither too difficult nor too easy.

Finally, people who find purpose in their work achieve the highest, more pure form of motivation. It is connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives you. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and going to school without groaning and grumbling. This purpose, this deeper meaning, will also mean that you will be willing to pursue more difficult challenges, going the extra mile and staying engaged. You’re inspired to stretch beyond your capacities and tackle impossible challenges if you truly care about the outcome. 

This triad, while certainly aspirational, is not always realistic to achieve when you are drowning in coursework, assignments, standardized test prep, extracurriculars, and countless other challenges in which we may feel out of control, not good at, and view as pointless.

In these scenarios, here are some actionable tips to inspire motivation when there is none. 

  1. Set achievable goals. Studies have found that when people make progress toward goals, they are more motivated to continue. 
  2. Acknowledge intangible rewards. 
  3. Change your interpretation of failure. 
  4. Reframe your definition of success. 
  5. Increase the cost of inaction.

I lay once more, dejected upon my wooden desk and finally decided to shift my thinking. This writing task had loomed for countless days now, and I had not found it within me to complete it. Perhaps I was going about it all wrong. 

“What is the greater purpose for me writing this?” I thought to myself, taking a step back from the grueling challenge I had perceived it to be. This work of creative expression was more than just a pesky assignment my instructor Athena had so nonchalantly tossed my way. This was an endeavor in introspection, in delighting in the craft of writing, attaining a higher plane through the meditative and spiritual exercise in which I was engaged. More than that, I knew I was capable of it and my writing capacity would only grow as a result. 

Finally, scrawling the first sentence across the page, I felt motivation burst forth, that elusive siren that beckons, only when I listen close enough.