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What Really Is Motivation?

By: Ken Austin

Those of us interested in self-help hear a lot about and talk a lot about a thing called motivation. This particular article itself won’t be all that motivational (though it may in fact take some motivation to get through).

To follow we will take a closer, albeit brief, look at just what this thing called motivation is and learn a little more about it. Maybe then, perhaps, it will be easier for us to “get motivated” when we know exactly what this means!

Motivation is, on psychological terms, that which is causal in terms of behavior, i.e., the reason or reasons behind the action. Motivation can be based on base need (e.g., hunger is the motivation for eating) or based on higher desire (I wanted that last piece of cake so I took it). Motivation can also be rooted in higher concept, e.g., I behave a certain way because I hold a certain belief, perhaps a particular view of right and wrong.

Motivation is governed primarily by reward, a reward being a positive acknowledgment for a given behavior or behavior set. Rewards themselves can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. In intrinsic reward can be as simple as self-satisfaction or a feeling of accomplishment. An extrinsic reward can be anything from food to money to love.

Intrinsic rewards tend to be secondary to the pursuit of certain actions for their own sake and thus a happy byproduct. Extrinsic rewards tend to be pursued for the rewards themselves, e.g., many people aren’t motivated to work because of any intrinsic reward e.g., self-satisfaction, but rather because they simply want more money.

Obviously, base motivations are easier to understand and perhaps provide the most straightforward rationale for action. If one is hungry, he or she need not attend a motivational seminar to become motivated to eat—he or she simply eats!

Motivation as related to higher concept is also easy to understand. For example, a theist will behave a particular way because it is his or her belief that there is a higher being watching over him or her, one who has provided him or her with a certain set of rules for living and, as such, they are inclined to abide by these rules and this in two respects: 1) They seek to please this higher power; and 2) They do not wish to offend the higher power. Whether or not one’s higher concept has truth value, the rationale behind the motivation is logical.

Motivation, as related to the self-help movement at least, is primarily of the type based on higher desire. Individuals want certain things and thus they seek to build a rational basis for that desire as an edifice for the pursuit thereof. Such a motivational base will be successful in as much as the reward consists of both intrinsic and extrinsic elements.

Of course there is the element of desire itself to consider. Desire varies in degree and one must have the appropriate amount of desire to become motivated and to sustain such motivation to obtain the object of desire. This is something that cannot be quantified and seemingly varies from individual to individual.

In the final analysis, motivation is a deep well that needs to be explored all the more thoroughly as it is not at this point fully understood—especially motivation as related to higher desire, the type of interest to those of us in the self-help community. Hopefully this short introduction has pricked your interest and you, dear reader, will become an ongoing contributor to this discussion.

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