How to hack motivation to make you happier

How to Hack MotivationMotivation is chemistry.

That feeling you call motivation is to do with the dopamine in your brain, specifically the increase in dopamine in your “nucleus accumbens” is the brain’s 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 actually it's real role is in motivation

Dopamine is the neurochemical associated with pleasure but its real role is in motivation

The role of dopamine goes beyond our feelings of pleasure; it performs its task before we obtain the rewards. Dopamine’s actual job is to encourage us to act to achieve or avoid something.


To act or to avoid?

Motivation can be an encouragement to act or to run away

Motivation can be encouragement to act or to run away

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 – most, however, find themselves in the obstacles due to misfortune… 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 “I should have…” Or yelling (at yourself or outwardly) your self-disgust such as “useless idiot” and perhaps more colourful phrasing – you are doomed to repeat it. Not only will you repeat the ‘error’, but you are also physically hurting yourself – self-condemnation causes self-directed anger causes stress causes physical distress causes physical sickness and, for many, heart failure. It’s a little as if your heart decides that’s it’s had enough of your inward abuse and is desperately trying to communicate your need to stop doing it. If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke you’ve probably completely reassessed how you live your life – and sought more tranquility, less stressful behaviours – in some cases avoiding the major contributors to your previously high-stress levels – work and/or golf.

Driving a car often brings out the worst of our character.

Driving a car often brings out the worst in our character.

Some people don’t 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 you’ve been with me all this time. What you focus on is what you’ll 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

Encouragement is the eager anticipation of doing something fearful

Encouragement is the eager anticipation of doing something fearful

It is worth spending some time here on what we mean by encouragement. The word has ‘courage’ at its root. Thus, to encourage is to develop, enhance or build courage. Courage, you’ll remember, is not the absence of fear but the continuation to do something of which you are fearful. It follows therefore, that if we ‘encourage’ ourselves – we are building the strength to overcome our fears and commit to an action. Encouragement itself, is often mistaken for motivation – or exchanged for it. To get someone to accomplish something – they will need to be motivated and/or encouraged to do so. It is possible to get someone – or even yourself – to do something that does not satisfy a value – 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 ‘try’ to play until they find that they do not realise something of value for themselves. Yes, there are people who don’t like or enjoy golf. Shocking but true. Encouragement is good, but it is not a substitute for sustained motivation.

Hacking motivation to make you happier

The trick here is to set incremental goals. Smaller outcome steps along the way and dividing the larger goal into specific, rewarding tasks.

The trick here is to set incremental goals. Smaller outcome steps along the way and dividing the larger goal into specific, rewarding tasks.

One of the most fascinating and useful things we’ve learned from dopamine research is something I mentioned right at the beginning, that dopamine’s real job is to encourage us to act to achieve or avoid something.

You’ll have noticed for yourself, that when you have achieved a specific goal you wanted to achieve, you’ll 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 reward…. 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 there’s 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 you’ll be happier.

Try this for yourself now, use the SWING Outcome setting template for free here


Professional Leadership Caddy

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

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