Motivation: What is it?

Updated: Feb 19

Everything that we do of our own free will arises from some kind of motivation. But what exactly is motivation and where does it come from?

"Nothing will work unless you do" - Maya Angelou

If you woke up today looking forward to work, then you are one of the fortunate ones who is self-motivated to do your job. This is most likely because you enjoy doing what you do and maybe you like the people you do it with. It could also be because you are satisfied with what you get paid for your job.


The motivation to do something can, therefore, be for various reasons. If motivation has a reason, then it is worth analysing those reasons. This can help us make better choices in life.


The American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, came up with a model for human motivation. In this model, known as Maslow's Motivation Model, motivation is portrayed as a force that is meant to satisfy needs of various levels, starting from the bottom (as shown in the below figure). Once the needs at the lower levels are met, more motivation can be derived to proceed towards the higher levels.

A person who is struggling to put their next meal on the table cannot be blamed for not "aiming for the stars". Their immediate motivation is to get that next meal, and then the next and then the next. Once the need of "putting meals on the table" is sufficiently taken care of, then maybe they will think about having a nicer meal. Then, maybe they will think about nicer clothes. Eventually, they will be able to think about whatever is next, be it a nice car, a larger apartment, or raising kids.


Human motivation, then, seems to be a ladder - where the only immediate objective is to get to the next step. The question here is whether, while on step 1, does anyone ever aspire for step 10? I think so. Everyone likes to talk about their aspirations regardless of how attainable they think they are. For example, getting that fancy car or going on that nice holiday.


It is often suggested that aiming for the stars will at least take you half way there, which is still a long way from where you are now. However, to be able to aim high, you need to be content with your current situation. So how does contentment happen?


Gratitude for the past and present: I would contest that gratitude is the platform upon which contentment resides. It means that you have no regrets or resentments about the past. It means that you know that whatever happened has made you a better person today and that you fully deserve what you have, both the good and the not-so-good.


Positivity for the future: From gratitude stems a positive outlook. If you view the past through a negative lens, then you are most likely to look at the future through the same lens. If you accept that past experiences have made you a better person, however pleasant or unpleasant it may have been at the time, you are sure to look towards the future with positivity.


Going back to the ladder analogy, if you have slipped down a step, you can either step back up or be fearful that you may slip again. If you never try to step back up, you will either remain where you are, or even worse, slip further down due to being taken over by your fear.


From a scientific viewpoint, it is believed that a part of your brain known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS) plays an important role in your ability to stay positive. In essence, if you condition your mind to focus on positive things, you will notice more of it. This does not mean "everything is good". It just means you don't let yourself be affected by what is not good. This develops resilience and helps you move forward in life regardless of circumstances.


So what does this have to do with motivation? Going back to Maslow's Motivation Model, the needs at the lower end can be met by the kind of motivation that is rooted in survival. However, as we progress upwards, our motivation is fuelled by our future vision. For example, once you reach level 2 (safety needs), you are in a position to be grateful for where you are and this will propel you to progress towards a better future.


Many of us are fortunate to be born into one of the middle levels, with our 'Belonging' and 'Esteem' needs already met by our parents and/or those who cared for us when we were little. It is then a matter of learning to be grateful for our circumstances and progressing from there. This usually happens through some kind of loss and going through a journey recovering from that loss.


Experiencing a tragedy such as, for example, losing a loving parent, forces one to go through a process of coming to terms with the loss. This process will inevitably expound a number of valuable lessons, the most important being the value of gratitude for having such a parent. On the other hand, those who had abusive parents will have to go through a different kind of journey to overcome their psychological trauma.


Therefore, there is always a learning process one has to go through to understand the value of what they have and don't have. Once this is done, it is easier to have more healthy and positive motivations for doing what we do. Once we get to such a state, we will naturally be more inclined to spread positive vibes with others, thereby helping them in their own journey, whatever it may be.


So, next time you wake up and are ready to go to work, just remember that there is always someone out there who doesn't have what you have. This might just motivate you to be a little nicer, kinder, and just better.





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