When we look at the whole range of our human behavior, every action that we take can be broken down into a few broad categories that explains why we do what we do. In understanding these motivations, we can come to a better understanding of who we are and set a path as to what we may change if our desire is to better ourselves.
All behavior is driven by a motivation, and all authentic motivation is driven by an attempt to meet some fundamental and universal human need. Our experience when a need is met is that we feel positive emotions. This positive feeling then reinforces continuing a rewarding behavior or staying in an environment that makes us feel good. If we are wise, these positive feelings also inspire planning for a long term strategy so that we can readily repeat this positive feeling again. So for example, if we’re on a first date and within the first few minutes there’s an obvious strong mutual attraction, then there’s an immediate motivation to stay connected and engaged, with the thought of “this may be the one” and a feeling of “I don’t want this night to end.” As the night inevitably draws to a close, there’s a drive to want to repeat this experience – “We should make plans to see each other again…soon.” Even after the date is over, our thoughts may replay the experience of that first date, causing us to feel positive emotions even while we are not directly connected to the person – this daydreaming creating a sense of continuity between the first and the next date. Ideally, this type of positive experience leads to more positive experiences that eventually become integrated into everyday life. So for this example, a person’s universal needs for meaningful relationship may be permanently met by forming a long-term, stable, committed, and loving partnership.
If our needs are unmet, then we experience unpleasant feelings – whether it’s hunger, thirst, pain, sadness, anxiety, or anger. The distinction between physical and emotional feelings isn’t as important as the common underlying mechanism – that our minds and bodies instinctually generate a distinct signal to alert us of the specific problem we are facing. As we consider when we are most likely to stop what we’re doing and immediately redirect towards new action, it’s usually mediated by these types of feelings:
“I feel hungry, I need to eat something now.”
“I’m scared, I need to get out of here.”
“I’m so upset. I need to fix this right now.”
Intense unpleasant feelings create a heightened self-awareness and temporarily changes our state of being, and this change in state of mind and body sets up the likelihood of taking action. Also, the more intense the feeling, the more immediate our response.
This leads to one of the vulnerabilities we all have when it comes to our behavior. Since emotions are the catalyst regarding our motivation, we also can be manipulated by exploitation of our feelings. Sometimes this happens when we can’t regulate our own emotions, which highlights the importance of the relationship between emotional effectiveness and healthy motivation. Though ideally we want our motivation to come from within, sometimes we also do things because we are influenced by outside forces, which still activate these same internal motivational processes. When we look at how people can be influenced, it’s first and foremost through the activation of certain feelings in us that then compel us to respond in ways that are consistent with what others want us to do. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact mutual responsiveness is a core component of loving relationships, and being connected to one another’s emotions can facilitate empathy, connection, and compassion. However, it is specifically because this process of influence through emotions is part of what is normal and healthy, that we don’t necessary see it when we are being manipulated. Constant threats from your boss of losing your job makes a person feel fearful, and therefore “choose” to work harder. Promises of big performance bonuses from your boss makes a person feel excited with anticipation, also making a person “choose” to work harder. Deprivation of sleep, light, social contact, food or water can make a prisoner “willingly” confess. Being flooded with kindness, affection, attention, or pleasure can also make the recipient extremely loyal and open to doing many things in return, which explains the psychology behind gangs or cults.
Another vulnerability is when we have multiple needs and a mixture of feelings, which can lead to confusion and indecisiveness:
“I’m feeling tired and need to rest, but at the same time I’m concerned I’m not ready for my test tomorrow morning.”
“I’m really into this video game on my phone right now, but I also recognize that I need to get some work done.”
“I know that there’s a better way to do this, but that’s going to take a lot of time and energy, and I just want to get this over with, so I’m going to take the easy way and deal with the consequences later.”
So how do we overcome these vulnerabilities? 1) Self-awareness cultivated by mindfulness, 2) a balanced and accurate time perspective, and 3) through the conviction of authentic beliefs. Let me expand:
Mindfulness Again? – Mindfulness has been defined in many ways but most simply, it’s the experience of being highly attuned to one’s self. While we are in a mindful state, we have more control over our thoughts and feelings, and therefore we are less impulsive, less likely to emotionally dysregulated, more balanced between what we think and feel. Our judgment is better because of this heightened awareness – to ourselves, to our circumstance, and to the intentions of others. We also can direct our own intentions more effectively in this state of mind as well. Taken together, being mindful allows us to be more in control of ourselves, and therefore less likely to be swayed by excessive emotions or outside influences, even if they temporarily activate intense feelings within us. Learn more about Mindfulness here.
Getting the Timing Right – A balanced time perspective is also an accurate one. The past is over and done with, but it did happen – the good and the bad. The present is real and it’s the moment in which we live. What we do in the present affects the inevitable future, so we need to consider that some of the resources we have available today are going to be necessary for some of our future needs. So a healthy and useful time perspective is one that learns from past experiences, is engaged in the present, and anticipates the inevitability of the future. This consideration of how time affects us also gives us a certain wisdom regarding the best way to meet our needs. Our negative past experiences help create a context for doing better in the present and future. Our past positive experiences help inspire us to make strategies to recreate regularly occurring opportunities in our every day life. As mentioned first, our needs dictate our motivation, so understanding that there are present needs and future needs helps us best determine where our resources and energies are best spent. We may delay present gratification so we can meet future needs, like saving for retirement instead of spending all of our income. We may take the time to plan in the present so that our results later will be more successful or sustainable, like reading parenting books during pregnancy. We may be willing to work hard in the present so that things are easier in the future, like studying during the semester rather than cramming during finals week.
The Importance of Beliefs – In order to achieve long term goals, we need a consistent presence in our mind to sustain us through the inevitable challenges that will come along the way as we make changes in our lives. This is manifested in conviction, determination, grit, and persistence, but these all come from one source – our beliefs. It is our beliefs that determine our automatic thoughts and behaviors. It is our beliefs that affect our judgments, our decisions, what we think is meaningful or worthwhile. It is our beliefs that dictate what needs we decide are more important than others. Therefore, it is also a shift in beliefs, mediated by new learning and insight, that supplies the drive behind any potential changes we make in life. Change is driven by insight. Because belief has such a central role in our past, present, and future behavior, it’s crucial that our beliefs are accurate and authentic. Learn more about the value of authenticity as it relates to personal growth here.
The last important way in which we understand why we do what we do is that if there is an easy option, we’re likely to consider it. We like easy. We want easy. The challenge is that sometimes we like it and want it so much that we choose it even when easy is not best, nor effective, or even good. But here’s the thing. If we do anything often enough, our brains have a way of learning so that everything gets easier over time. One of the outcomes of integration, the final stage of personal growth and change, is that our brains learn the most efficient path for repetitive behaviors, so that over time our common experiences feel natural and familiar. What used to be new, eventually becomes our “new normal.” If we’ve made healthy choices regarding change, the process also tends to be gratifying, which only reinforces a desire for repetition. Once we’ve gained this type of competency, there’s always a sense of ease connected to these experiences, and feeling ease is one of the ways in which growth can be gratifying.
So making things easy is actually a really important part of motivation and behavior, and it’s one of the outcomes we’re intentionally aiming for. It’s not really then a decision between easy or hard, but more easy now or easy later. Considering the three principles above and connecting it to our wish for things to be easy, we can be mindful of our feelings and needs, and direct our intention towards the best action to meet those needs. That best action is determined by understanding the whole range of needs, including both the present and future. Our beliefs are informed by our past experiences, both positive and negative which shape our expectations about the future. These insights help us decide whether we should stay the course determined by our beliefs thus far which has already been integrated as the “easy” thing to do, or if it’s more important for us to make a change and reshape our beliefs, which will require for us to make sacrifices in the present for the sake of “ease” and fulfillment in the future.
Now that’s the answer to the question “why did I do that?” and that’s a good start to gaining more motivation in life. I’ll mention again that change is driven by insight. But there’s still a lot more to consider. If you’d like to learn even more about personal growth and motivation, and specifically how to apply these truths and principles into your daily life, please subscribe to my mailing list to keep up to date on upcoming workshops, newsletters, or speaking events where we discuss the practical implementation of these ideas. Thanks.