Health / Expert Advice

The Science of Motivation—and How to Boost Yours

Research-backed tips for getting motivated and reaching your goals.

From rolling out of bed in the morning and going to work to choosing the gym over your couch at night, motivation is a determining factor in how you live your life. When that internal drive is firing on all cylinders, you can rise to meet difficult tasks and feel rewarded at their completion. When it’s not, even everyday activities such as performing your job, maintaining relationships, and exercising can feel burdensome or not worth the effort.

Ask a dictionary, and you’ll learn that motivation is the reason a person has for acting or behaving a certain way. Seems simple enough. But beneath the surface, there’s a lot more to it. That’s why scientists have studied motivation for decades, attempting to establish the biological, cognitive, and social forces that govern the way you think and act. Below, we’re diving headfirst into some of that science to learn exactly what is happening in your brain when you feel motivated and how you can get and stay motivated to achieve your goals.

Motivation and the Brain

A Vanderbilt University study published in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at how brain chemistry impacted a person’s willingness to work. Using brain-mapping technology, scientists found that those who are willing to work hard for rewards had a “higher release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in areas of the brain known to play an important role in reward and motivation.” On the other hand, those “who are less willing to work hard for a reward had high dopamine levels in another brain area that plays a role in emotion and risk perception.”

In both cases, dopamine plays an integral role in people’s actions. However, only in the former instance does dopamine spur them to work toward a goal. “Past studies in rats have shown that dopamine is crucial for reward motivation,” says Vanderbilt scientist Michael Treadway. “But this study provides new information about how dopamine determines individual differences in the behavior of human reward-seekers.”

It also shows how motivation levels are linked to the difficulty—or perceived difficulty—and the rewards of a given task. Generally, when rewards are higher, the motivation to complete a task will also be higher. But because dopamine is linked to stimuli, the brain will try to predict what happens next. Basically, it will try to determine whether what happens will be good or bad. According to a University of North Carolina white paper on the neuroscience of motivation, “That prediction, in turn, triggers the motivation to respond. To act to minimize a predicted threat (the bad) or to maximize a predicted reward (the good).” When faced with various situations, some people will be compelled to maximize rewards. Meanwhile, others’ brains will compel them to minimize consequences.

The Two Basic Types of Motivation

Many factors can motivate someone to do something, but the two primary types of motivation are intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic refers to motivating factors that come from within. For example, you want to start jogging to lower your blood pressure and feel better about your overall health and fitness. Extrinsic motivation refers to that which is fueled by outside desires. For instance, you feel pressure to get into shape to impress your friends or a potential mate.

From there, motivation can take many forms. Rewards, gaining competence, or the fear of failure can all act as motivation. But it all comes back to internal and external factors. So, it’s helpful to recognize whether your own desires or outside forces are driving you toward a goal.

How to Get and Stay Motivated

Look around, and you’ll find countless tips for increasing motivation. But there are several tried-and-true methods that scientists agree on. The below apply to many facets of life, from the workplace to the gym. Whatever you’re hoping to achieve this year, heed the following advice. You’ll have a better chance of starting and sticking with it.

Set a goal.

Seminal research from psychologist Edwin Locke established a goal-setting theory that’s still followed today. One of its key tenets is that specific goals yield better results than vague goals. To stay motivated, you need conscious intentions. Instead of resolving to “work out more,” resolve to “visit the gym four times a week.” Incremental goals can also be helpful, especially when you’re just starting out. In that case, you might decide to “go running on Monday.” It’s one small step in the right direction that, when strung together with other small steps, can have a big impact.

Track your progress.

Now that you’ve set some goals, it’s time to track your progress. Each time you check something off the list, such as going to the gym, make note of it. Completing goals provides positive feedback to your brain, which can help get that coveted dopamine flowing. The more positive feedback your brain gets, the more dopamine it can allot toward motivating you to keep going.

Stay positive.

According to neuroscientist and Optimism Bias author Tali Sharot, humans are more optimistic than realistic, and that’s a good thing. Believing in ourselves and remaining hopeful is part of what keeps us resilient, even in the face of negativity or failure. “Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals,” she writes.

Surround yourself with like-minded people.

Research published in Nature Communications shows that exercise is contagious. If your friends do it, you’re more likely to do it, too. The study also found that working out with friends can create some healthy competition. Participants were incentivized to run slightly farther or longer than their friends. Find or form a social group that likes being active. It’ll hold you accountable and push you to keep going.

Reward yourself.

As noted above, rewards can be a powerful motivator. Of course, if you allow yourself to eat pizza each time you exercise, the results won’t stick. Find a reward that works for you and reinforces your behavior. You’ll be more likely to maintain those healthy habits in the long term.

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