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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

How to Hack the Reward System in Your Brain And Stay Motivated

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How to Hack the Reward System in Your Brain And Stay Motivated

How do we achieve our biggest goals in life? Hard work, learning new skills, and staying focused are definitely important things, but one of the most important things we need is motivation. Losing motivation can stop us in our tracks. It can make us procrastinate, doubt our skills and abilities, and take us off the path to success. In the worst cases, a lack of motivation can destroy our goals and kill our dreams.

Where does motivation come from?

It starts with thoughts and chemicals in the reward systems in our brains. It continues to develop in our brains and is further shaped by our behaviors. This is why neuroscience, which is the study of the function of the brain, is so important.

When we understand the basics of neuroscience, we can hack the reward system in our brains so we can stay motivated to achieve our biggest goals.

The Neuroscience of Motivation

At the most basic level, humans want to avoid pain and experience pleasure. Our pleasure-seeking behavior is based on a mental reward system that’s controlled by our brains. This reward system is what keeps us motivated and helps us achieve our biggest goals and dreams.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brains that help shape our thoughts and behaviors. One of the main neurotransmitters in our reward system is the “pleasure” chemical dopamine. Dopamine is produced mainly in the mid-brain and then moves to other areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which plays a big role in our emotional development. It also moves to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking, feeling, planning, and taking action.[1]

When you do something pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine to make you feel good mentally and physically. This commonly happens when we eat our favorite foods, have sex, have a great conversation with someone, or do something else we really enjoy. Each time we feel pleasure from doing something, our brains remember what made us feel good. It actually assigns a reward value for everything we do.

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For example, eating a slice of our favorite pizza may have a higher reward value than drinking a smoothie. Being on that tropical vacation will have a higher reward value than watching that water fountain downtown.

Our brains even release dopamine before we engage in those things that make us happy. It’s the expectation of the reward rather than the reward itself that has the strongest influence on our emotional reactions and memories of what’s pleasurable.[2] Just planning that tropical vacation by checking out different locations on a travel site or looking at things we want to buy on Amazon stimulates our reward system by releasing dopamine.

Thinking about starting a project at work that we’re really passionate about also activates our reward system. This act of feeling the pleasure generated by our mental reward systems is what creates reward-seeking behavior and is a big part of motivation.

Vanderbilt University researchers discovered that “go-getters” who are more willing to work hard have greater dopamine activity in the striatum and prefrontal cortex, two areas of the brain that influence motivation and reward.[3]

Hacking Our Brain’s Reward System

Here are four ways to hack the reward system in your brain to stay motivated.

1. Keep Growing

When you do the same things over and over, that dopamine rush tends to get smaller and smaller. A great way to stay motivated is to keep growing by doing bigger and bigger things.

Take on bigger, more challenging projects at work. Once you’ve reached a running or fitness milestone, start working toward a bigger one. If you’re fluent in a foreign language, learn how to have more complex, philosophical conversations. If you have your own business, find ways to acquire more clients so you can generate more profit. Keep learning new skills that will push you to the edge of your comfort zone.

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Taking on greater challenges helps our brain’s reward system continue to assign high reward values to things we do. Start by accomplishing small goals. As you accumulate more and more small wins, work your way up to more challenging goals.

2. Use Visualization

“Visualization is daydreaming with a purpose.”—Bo Bennett

A great way to stay motivated is to visualize accomplishing a goal—even though you haven’t completed it yet. Visualization actually causes the brain to release dopamine. This makes us see our future rewards more clearly and go after them more fervently.

When our brains release dopamine and we feel that rush of euphoria, our hippocampus, which is part of our brain’s limbic system, records those pleasurable moments in our long-term memory. The more we visualize success, the more our brains associate this visualized success with pleasurable feelings.

When we can imagine a better future, we’re motivated to keep pushing forward and overcoming obstacles in our path. This is why people work hard to get raises and promotions, invest their money, put their kids thru college, and do other things that help them or others prosper later in life.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, and other famous and influential people have used visualization to achieve sky-high success.[4] It’s a great way to use the power of your imagination to keep you motivated to succeed.

3. Avoid Excessive Stress

High levels of stress are associated with chronic inflammation, which can cause our motivation to decrease. Researchers at Emory University have theorized that chronic inflammation from stress may cause a chemical reaction in the body that decreases dopamine supplies in the brain.[5]

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Low levels of stress can actually help us perform better by making us more alert. That adrenaline rush we get from stress can give us the energy and the edge to do our best. But when stress levels are high, stress can be damaging to our bodies, minds, and motivation.[6]

High-stress can lead to burnout. In the worse cases, it can cause people to quit projects or quit their jobs. It can cause mental problems such as anxiety or depression. It can lead to health problems like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other illnesses. Reduce stress by doing deep breathing exercises, meditating, running, or exercising regularly.

4. Reframe Challenges

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.—Wayne Dyer

Another great way to hack your brain’s reward system is to change how you look at challenges in your life. A common problem is that many people see difficult work as an obstacle or simply something they don’t like doing.

A good strategy is to look at difficult situations and obstacles as opportunities that will help you and those around you grow. This will help us look at difficult things in a positive light and actually look forward to doing them instead of dreading them.

For example, if three employees on your team aren’t getting along with each other and two of them are thinking about quitting, don’t look at this as a very stressful, terrible problem. Instead, look at the situation as an opportunity to use your interpersonal skills to gather the angry employees together, let them voice their concerns, and then resolve the problem.

It will help them improve personally and professionally. It will also help you and your company prosper as well. You can also apply this same way of thinking to your personal life. If your friends or family members aren’t getting along, use the disagreement as a growth opportunity that will benefit them and you.

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When we can see difficult things as great opportunities, we’ll start to look forward to them. When we look forward to doing things, it makes the reward system in our brains reward us with more dopamine, and it increases the chances that we’ll look at future problems as opportunities to grow.

Conclusion

Motivation is a challenging part of personal and professional development. This is why motivational videos and motivational speeches are so popular. A central part of staying motivated, even during the most challenging times, is to understand how our brains work. Science has given us a good understanding of our brain’s reward system and the chemicals and pathways that allow it to shape our behavior.

Hack that reward system in your brain by taking on bigger challenges, visualizing success, avoiding excessive stress, and looking at difficult situations as opportunities to help others and help yourself grow.

When we begin to master our brains, we’ll be better able to master our lives and achieve those big goals.

More Tips on How to Stay Motivated

Featured photo credit: Giorgio Trovato via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Charles Amemiya

Speaker, life/business coach, social responsibility advocate and technical writer.

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Published on September 27, 2021

What Is Incentive Motivation And Does It Work?

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What Is Incentive Motivation And Does It Work?

We’ve all needed a bit of inspiration at some time in our lives. In the past year or two, that need most likely has grown. Who hasn’t been trying to shed those extra pounds we put on during the pandemic? Who hasn’t felt the need to fake a little enthusiasm at joining yet another Zoom call? Who hasn’t been trying to get excited about trekking back into the office for a 9 to 5 (longer if you add in the commute)? Feeling “meh” is a sign of our times. So, too, is incentive motivation, a way to get back our spark, our drive, and our pursuit of the things we say we want most.

In this article, I’ll talk about what incentive motivation is and how it works.

What Is Incentive Motivation?

Incentive motivation is an area of study in psychology focused on human motivation. What is it that gets us to go from couch potato to running a marathon? What spurs us to get the Covid vaccine—or to forgo it? What is it that influences us to think or act in a certain way? Incentive motivation is concerned with the way goals influence behavior.[1] By all accounts, it works if the incentive being used holds significance for the person.

The Roots of Incentive Motivation

Incentive motivation’s roots can be traced back to when we were children. I’m sure many of us have similar memories of being told to “eat all our veggies” so that we would “grow up to be big and strong,” and if we did eat those veggies, we would be rewarded with a weekend trip to a carnival or amusement park or playground of choice. The incentive of that outing was something we wanted enough to have it influence our behavior.

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Growing up, incentive motivation continues to play a major role in what we choose to do. For example, while we may not have relished the idea of spending years studying, getting good grades, pursuing advanced degrees, and graduating with sizeable debt from student loans, a great many of us decided to do just that. Why? Because the end goal of a career, a coveted title, and the associated incentives of financial reward and joy in doing something we love were powerful motivators.

One researcher who believes in the power of incentive motivation is weight management expert, co-author of the book State of Slim, and co-founder of the transformational weight loss program of the same name, Dr. Holly Wyatt. Her work with her clients has proven time and again that when motivation fizzles, incentives can reignite those motivational fires.

“Eat more veggies, exercise, keep track of my weight: These things and more DO work, but bottom line, you gotta keep doing them. Setting up rituals and routines to put your efforts on auto-pilot is one way. And along the way, the use of both external and internal motivators helps keep people on track. External motivation sources are those things outside of ourselves that help to motivate us. They’re powerful, like pouring gasoline on a fire. But they may not last very long. Internal motivators are more tied into the reasons WHY we want to reach our goals. In my State of Slim weight loss program, we spend a lot of time on what I call ‘peeling back the onion’ to find the WHY. I think the internal motivators are more powerful, especially for the long-term, but they may take longer to build. They’re the hot coals that keep our motivational fires burning.”

Examples of Incentive Motivation

In the way of incentive motivation, specific to the external motivators, Dr. Wyatt challenges her clients to commit to changing just one behavior that will help them reach their weight loss goals. Clients must then agree to a “carrot” or a “stick” as either their reward for accomplishing what they say they will do or as their punishment for falling short. Those incentives might be something like enjoying a spa day if they do the thing they said they would do or sweating it out while running up and down the stairwell of their apartment building a certain number of times as punishment for not following through.

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Whatever they choose, the goal must be something they really want, and the incentive must be something that matters to them enough to influence their behaviors in reaching those goals. Some people are more motivated by some sort of meaningful reward (a carrot) whereas, other people are more motivated by some sort of negative consequence or the taking away of a privilege (the stick).

Another example of incentive motivation is playing out currently with companies and government entities offering perks to people who get the Covid vaccine. Nationwide, offers are being made in the way of lottery tickets, cash prizes, concert seats, free admission to events and discounts for food, and even free drink at local restaurants and bars. The list of incentives being offered to the public to increase vaccination rates is pretty extensive and quite creative.[2]  These incentives are financial, social, and even hit on moral sensibilities. But is this particular incentive motivation working?

Remember that a key to incentive motivation working is if the individual puts importance on the reward being received on the ultimate goal. So, not all incentives will motivate people in the same way. According to Stephen L. Franzoi, “The value of an incentive can change over time and in different situations.”[3]

How Does Incentive Motivation Differ from Other Types of Motivators?

Incentive motivation is just one type of motivating force that relies on external factors. While rewards are powerful tools in influencing behaviors, a few other options may be more aligned with who you are and what gets you moving toward your goals.

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Fear Motivation

In many ways, being motivated by fear is the very opposite of being motivated by incentives. Rather than pursuing some reward, it’s the avoidance of some consequence or painful punishment that sparks someone into action. For example, married couples may “forsake all others” not out of love or commitment but out of a fear that they may be “taken to the cleaners” by their spouses if their infidelities are revealed.

Another example wherein fear becomes the great motivator is one we’re hearing about more and more as we’re coming out of this pandemic—the fear of being poor. The fear of being poor has kept many people in jobs they hate. It’s only now that we see a reversal as headlines are shining a light on just how many workers are quitting and refusing to go back to the way things were.

Social Motivation

Human beings are social creatures. The desire to belong is a powerful motivator. This type of social motivation sparks one’s behavior in ways that, hopefully, result in an individual being accepted by a certain group or other individuals.

The rise of the Internet and the explosion of social media engagement has been both positive and negative in its power to motivate us to be included among what during our school days would be called “the cool kids” or “cliques” (jocks, nerds, artsy, gamers, etc.). We probably all have experienced at one time or another the feelings associated with “not being chosen”—whether to be on a team to play some game or as the winning candidate for some job or competition. Social rejection can make or break us.

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Before You Get Up and Go…

Know that, especially during these challenging times, it’s “normal” and very much “okay” to feel a lack of motivation. Know, too, that external motivators, such as those we’ve talked about in this article, can be great tools to get your spark back. We’ve only touched on a few here. There are many more—both external and internal.

Remember that these external motivators, such as incentive motivations, are only as powerful as the importance placed on the reward by the individual. It’s also important to note that if there isn’t an aligned internal motivation, the results will more than likely be short-lived.

For example, losing a certain amount of weight because you want to fit into some outfit you intend to wear at some public event may get you to where you want to be. But will it hold up after your party? Or will those pounds find their way back to you? If you want to be rewarded at work with that trip to the islands because you’ve topped the charts in sales and hustle to make your numbers, will you be motivated again and again for that same incentive? Or will you need more and more to stay motivated?

Viktor Frankl, the 20th-century psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is quoted as having said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” As important as external motivators like incentives may be in influencing behaviors, the key is always to align them with one’s internal “why”—only then will the results be long-lived.

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So, how might incentive motivation influence you and your behavior toward goals? Knowing your answer might keep you energized no matter what your journey and help to further your successes.

Featured photo credit: Atharva Tulsi via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Britannica: Incentive motivation
[2] National Governors Association: COVID-19 Vaccine Incentives
[3] verywellmind: The Incentive Theory of Motivation

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