Mind & Body

The Mysteries of Motivation


When I was in elementary school, one of my friends revealed that her mom paid her for earning good grades. I had always been an excellent student, so this sounded like a great idea to me. I went home that afternoon and told my dad I thought we should implement this system.

Let’s just say the idea was not well received.

“I am not going to pay you for good grades,” he said. “You get good grades because you work hard. Those grades are your reward.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad was helping me understand the difference between internal and external motivation. And to this day, I’m grateful for that lesson. (Even though I really would have appreciated the chance to earn a few extra bucks.)

When I’ve asked my friends how they think about motivation, their responses are mostly split between those who see it as an internal force and those who think of it as an external incentive.  Some see it as a fundamental piece of their psyche. Others see it as something they don’t control. One friend who has struggled with depression explained it this way: “Without motivation, I can make myself get out of bed–but it feels like I’m fighting gravity.”

This is the time of year when many of us are focused on new year’s resolutions. I gave up on “resolving” anything a long time ago, but I do set goals for the new year. How can I make it more likely that I’ll accomplish those goals? Do I need external rewards for achieving milestones? Or is the secret in developing my internal motivation? And if it is–how do I do that?

Psychologists themselves aren’t sure where motivation comes from. Some think of it as an instinct–we’re motivated to do certain things (like pull our hand away from a flame) as a matter of survival. Whatever doesn’t involve a life-or-death component, then, requires external motivation. That’s the behavioral model of motivation: we do things because we want a specific reward. I go to work every day, for instance, because I enjoy getting a paycheck.

All of that makes a lot of sense. But what about the “drive theory” of motivation? It proposes that we develop the motivation to do certain things in order to reduce internal tensions. I go to the gym in order to assuage my worries about poor health. I eat in order to eliminate unpleasant feelings of hunger, knowing they’ll just get worse. That makes sense, too.

The basic question here is whether motivation is an internal push or an external pull. So the approach to motivation that makes the most sense to me is the humanistic theory, which argues that we all have strong psychological reasons for our actions. Whether we’re motivated by internal forces or external rewards, we take action only when we’re equipped to do so.

You might already be familiar with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which proposes that certain motivations take precedence over others. Our needs for food and shelter are fundamental; they compel us to take quick action. (That’s why you cover your head when it starts to rain, almost by reflex.) Until those basic needs are met, we won’t be motivated to think about higher-order concerns, like fulfilling our human potential.

Maslow’s hierarchy is a helpful way of thinking about motivation because it outlines the factors that sometimes feel like they’re getting in our way. In fact, the problem is not that needs get in our way; the problem is that we get our needs out of order.

For instance: the need for intimate relationships–whether friends or family–is situated below the need for accomplishment in Maslow’s hierarchy. That helps me understand why hearing someone praise our professional successes doesn’t begin to assuage our feelings of loneliness. It also helps me understand why creative pursuits strike some people as a waste of time. If their more basic needs aren’t being met, they might actually feel bad about devoting energy to something higher on the pyramid.

It’s also useful to understand that Maslow’s hierarchy can be divided into deficiency needs and growth needs. Only the top level points to personal growth; until we have everything else in place, expecting ourselves to expand in new directions just isn’t realistic. It’s a little like expecting a rose bush to bloom without water, soil, and sun.

External motivation has almost never worked for me, and I think I know why now: it’s almost always been aimed in the wrong direction. Rather than pointing down the hierarchy of needs, I’ve set goals for myself that skipped up a tier (or two.) I expected myself to grow before I had what I needed to do that.

In my younger years, for example, when I set weight loss goals, I often did that with the intention of attracting a romantic partner. But the promise of new clothes in a smaller size never motivated me to change my behavior, because what I needed were stronger relationships–and I was still learning how to build them.

Now that I’m in a happier place in my life, it’s no surprise that making healthier choices for myself isn’t usually a struggle. I’m motivated to do this because I’ve put my needs in order. And though our needs are, of course, always changing–and some may never be fully met–it’s always worth asking ourselves how they might be impacting the choices we make.

If you’re struggling to find the motivation to meet a goal this year, ask yourself whether you have everything you need to be successful. And rather than thinking of motivation as something you lack, consider the possibility that it’s something we all need to nurture within ourselves.

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