For a whole day, I had no motivation whatsoever.

I couldn’t be bothered to look at my to-do list, let alone actually do anything on it. I thought a change of scenery might help so I walked listlessly to a cafe, but couldn’t even be bothered to go inside and order so I sat on a bench outside for half an hour. Even my normal procrastination activities seemed like too much effort.

So when I woke up the following day with a raging fever and nearly fainted as soon as I stood up, it was actually a huge relief: I had a reason for my sudden lack of motivation. It must have been to do with the oncoming illness, so once I’d shaken the illness off I’d be back to normal (and I was).

But what if I hadn’t? What if there was no clear reason, and I never snapped back to normal?

Being busy and productive is a major part of my self-image, and I can’t remember the last time I was bored: there’s always something useful to do or interesting to learn. It was scary to be reminded that this isn’t some kind of set-in-stone, hard-wired characteristic: it’s the result of some fairly delicate brain chemistry, and the recipe that produces the drive I value so much can easily be influenced by factors beyond my control and understanding.

It sounds bad, but on some level I’ve always felt superior to people who seem to lack in drive. Of course, some people are clinically depressed and I’ve never felt anything but sympathy for them. But someone who’s just a bit lazy or lacking in get-up-and-go…I’ve thought myself better than them. After this experience, I don’t – because what can they actually do about it, and what have I done to deserve to be different?

I’m not in any way special, but I’ve got a natural drive that’s sufficient to get me doing enough positive activities (exercising, working, learning) to produce good outcomes which add up to a great life. It’s tempting to tell myself the story that this drive is a trait I’ve built up over the years through hard work and fine moral character.

In a single day, that story fell apart: it’s nothing to do with my conscious self at all. It’s pure luck that whatever’s going on in my brain produces that drive the majority of the time – yet another piece of “circumstances of birth” good fortune to add to the list, and to feel grateful for.

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2 thoughts on “The chemistry of motivation

  1. Welcome to my world!

    Only joking, slightly. But I definitely don’t have that natural drive that, as you say, can produce good outcomes.

    For some reason, though, I still believe it is possible to become driven or productive and I haven’t given up on the idea of reaching that state one day. Despite much personal evidence to the contrary

    After reading this post, though, I now see it from the other perspective too, that “it’s nothing to do with my conscious self at all. It’s pure luck that whatever’s going on in my brain produces that drive the majority of the time”.

    Although, I did listen to a podcast a while back with an author who wrote a book called Hardwiring Happiness and they seemed to say you could train your brain, or rewire it to become happy, by doing the things that happy people do (or something, like that, I can’t quite remember it exactly).

    So maybe over the course of your life, you hardwired yourself to be driven. Maybe from a young age you were praised for being productive which encouraged you to be more driven. Then you started building that into your self-image and that started wiring that part of your brain. So maybe it’s not all down to luck and you unknowing created the type of brain that is driven and productive?

    A bit of nature and nurture perhaps?

    1. That’s really interesting, and you’re probably right that it’s a nature/nurture mix. My guess is that everyone comes with default wiring for all kinds of things (drive, happiness etc) which can then be modified to an extent by environmental reinforcement and deliberate effort. For example, I’ve deliberately become happier but I’m never going to be bouncing around grinning like someone who was “born that way”.

      The nature/nurture mix is a nice way of looking at it, because it lets you forgive yourself for any perceived shortcomings while still making sense to work at improving.

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