Motivation is chemistry.
That feeling you call motivation is to do with the dopamine in
your brain, specifically the increase in dopamine in your ânucleus
accumbensâ is the brainâs feedback for predicting rewards. Dopamine
is known as a neurochemical of pleasure, and sure, dopamine makes
you feel good, so why can we also get a spike of motivation in
times of great stress? Indeed, why are some people motivated to
jump off suspension bridges?
Dopamine is the neurochemical associated with pleasure but its
real role is in motivation[/caption] The role of dopamine goes
beyond our feelings of pleasure; it performs its task before we obtain the rewards. Dopamineâs actual job is
to encourage us to act to achieve or avoid something.
To act or to avoid?
Many successful golf players (and business leaders) are
motivated by their dissatisfaction with their performance. It can
be a very powerful motivator. You would expect someone who is thus
motivated to improve their game to be similarly motivated in other
aspects of their life. Do you see a golf course as a series of
obstacles to be avoided, or do you see the fairways and greens as
the thing to hit.
There are a few people who aim for the obstacles because they
excel at the tricky shots â most, however, find themselves in the
obstacles due to misfortuneâ¦ or were they actually responsible?
For most people, the
self-directed anger resulting from dissatisfaction is not a positive state
to be in. If you condemn yourself for playing poorly and use
self-talk phrase such as âI should haveâ¦â Or yelling (at yourself
or outwardly) your self-disgust such as âuseless idiotâ and perhaps
more colourful phrasing â you are doomed to repeat it. Not only
will you repeat the âerrorâ, but you are also physically hurting
yourself â self-condemnation causes self-directed anger causes
stress causes physical distress causes physical sickness and, for
failure. Itâs a little as if your heart
decides thatâs itâs had enough of your inward abuse and is
desperately trying to communicate your need to stop doing it. If
youâve had a heart attack or stroke youâve probably completely
reassessed how you live your life â and sought more tranquility,
less stressful behaviours â in some cases avoiding the major
contributors to your previously high-stress levels â work
Driving a car often brings out the worst in our character.
Some people donât realise that this is what they are like. The
way you drive your car is often a good indicator of your style. How
angry do you get when someone cuts into the queue in front of you?
When you pull up to the red traffic light, do you swerve over to
the other lane to be at the front of the queue? When motoring along
are you more concerned about getting somewhere quickly, or more
concerned with the traffic around you? Back to
golf. When you stand at the tee, what do you focus
your attention on? Your target?
Avoiding the trees/bunkers/water/rough? I hope
the former by now if youâve been with me all this time. What you
focus on is what youâll get. Motivation is
a multi-faceted phenomenon. In large part, motivation is about the
satisfaction of values held. It is the result of using particular
personal resources towards a specific goal that satisfies
a value or value held by that individual. Connecting any of
these three in any order, resources, values and outcome creates the
feeling of motivation as the nucleus accumbens anticipates the
reward for the price you are prepared to pay. In smaller part,
though often the critical component, is encouragement to
achieve a goal.
Encouragement to act or avoid
It is worth spending some time here on
what we mean by encouragement. The word has âcourageâ
at its root. Thus, to encourage is to develop, enhance or
build courage. Courage, youâll remember, is not the absence of fear
but the continuation to do something of which you
It follows therefore, that if we âencourageâ ourselves â
we are building the strength to overcome our fears and commit to an
action. Encouragement itself, is often mistaken for motivation â or
exchanged for it. To get someone to accomplish something â they
will need to be motivated and/or encouraged to do so. It is
possible to get someone â or even yourself â to do something that
does not satisfy a value â but such actions are not repeated if no
personal value is realised, that is, there is no reward for the
nucleus accumbens to reinforce the dopamine spike. For
example, many beginner golfers give up playing after being
encouraged (usually by a relative or close friend) to take up the
game. They continue to âtryâ to play until they find that they do
not realise something of value for themselves. Yes, there are
people who donât like or enjoy golf. Shocking but true.
Encouragement is good, but it is not a substitute for sustained
Hacking motivation to make you
One of the most fascinating and useful things weâve learned from
dopamine research is something I mentioned right at the beginning,
that dopamineâs real job is to encourage us to act to achieve or
avoid something. Youâll have noticed for yourself, that when you
have achieved a specific goal you wanted to achieve, youâll have a
burst of feeling good, but this soon dissipates. Your feelings
actually drop quite rapidly, like the wind has been taken from your
sails. That positive feeling was serotonin rather than dopamine.
Serotonin makes you feel generally happy and gives a sense of
well-being and pride. Your dopamine-induced pleasure was the
anticipation of the reward. Now you have achieved your goal; you
have your rewardâ¦. There is no more anticipation. You may even be
getting a little edgy after achieving your goal, especially if
others are not reinforcing you to feel good by congratulating you
on your brilliant achievement. This can quickly lead to
frustration, disappointment, and burnout as you stress about why
you feel less good than you did.
The trick here is to set incremental goals.
Smaller outcome steps along the way and dividing the larger
goal into specific, rewarding tasks such that you will look forward
from one task to the next in anticipation of the next task as a
reward in itself and along the journey to the far greater reward of
the completed goal. We can train our brain to feed on bursts of
dopamine triggered by such rewarding experiences. By setting
incremental specific outcomes, we rewire our brain by linking
and stimulating a dopamine response to each part of the task. You
can do this for others as well by deliberately giving them positive
feedback as they progress through the sub-tasks. And if thereâs
anything you want them to improve, then use the feedback sandwich.
Now all it takes is for you to have a little courage to try it out
and find that youâll be happier.
Try this for yourself now, use the SWING Outcome setting template
for free here