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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

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

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

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Charles Amemiya

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

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Published on May 12, 2021

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Is One Better Than The Other?

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Is One Better Than The Other?

Have you observed the behavior of children as they carry out daily tasks? They may naturally be inclined towards playing games with friends but would need a push to do their homework. Children may enjoy eating junk food by themselves but need adult monitoring while reluctantly having vegetables.

As these kids grow up, the behavior remains the same. There are many reasons we do certain things. Sometimes, we’re internally motivated to make something happen, and other times we’re driven externally. Such a dichotomy involves contrasting intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation:[1]

“When intrinsically motivated, people engage in an activity because they find it interesting and inherently satisfying. By contrast, when extrinsically motivated, people engage in an activity to obtain some instrumentally separable consequence, such as the attainment of a reward, the avoidance of punishment, or the achievement of some valued outcome.”

Read on to learn more about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation and find out how reward-oriented behavior influences our productivity and how we can regulate it!

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What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

All the theories that describe what classifies as intrinsic motivation talk about a natural drive from within to pursue an activity because it gives us pleasure.

Some psychology researchers have associated intrinsic behavior with basic human needs, creativity, performance enhancement, and contentment.[2] When we carry out a task that fulfills our natural urges, such as hunger, thirst, and sleep, we are better equipped with the drive to complete a task. Other times, we might simply do something because it stimulates the aesthetic experience of being in that state of activity, such as hobbies.

Simply put, activities that bring us satisfaction and joy are powered by intrinsic motivation because an internal reward system fuels them.

Examples of Intrinsic Motivation

  • Studying because you enjoy the process of gaining knowledge and not simply because you want good grades
  • Helping out a friend/family member with something out of love without expecting anything in return from them
  • Standing in the kitchen for hours to prepare your favorite meal because the end product satiates your hunger and gives you joy
  • Pursuing a hobby, such as gardening, trekking, camping, and playing sports, among others, to experience an aesthetic pleasure
  • Running a marathon to feel physically rejuvenated instead of seeking the prize money
  • Taking up extra responsibility at work/school to improve your skills without the intention of gaining recognition or earning someone’s favor

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

When we are not inherently motivated to perform a task because it does not bring about a sense of satisfaction, we are extrinsically motivated. Such motivation facilitates our desire to attain a reward or avoid punishment.

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Not all the work we do brings us joy, owing to its repetitive nature, urgency, necessity, frequency, duration, or monotony. Whether it is dragging ourselves to work/school every morning or working on weekends, we tend to undertake tasks that might not inherently please or satisfy us. Usually, an external force or ulterior motive drives us to complete such tasks. Rewards like money, praise, and fame drive our motivation extrinsically.

However, extrinsic motivation does not necessarily mean that we are unwilling to do something. We just seek an external reward from it. For example, a person might like writing but goes the extra mile to make money out of it.

Point to be noted: Offering external rewards for something that already rewards inherently can decrease motivation, known as the overjustification effect.[3]

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation

  • Working a part-time job to make extra money while still being a student
  • Participating in competitions to win prizes and earn fame
  • Attending classes regularly not because the lecture is exciting but to maintain the attendance record
  • Going to the office on lazy days to avoid pay-cut
  • Completing a task well before time to earn praise and recognition
  • Doing something you don’t like just to avoid public judgment
  • Doing chores to flatter parents before requesting something from them

The 3 Regulators of Productivity

As social beings, we interact with our surroundings to tend to our satisfaction and gain. Despite being interlinked with various social factors, we still act independently as individually identifiable beings with preferences and opinions.

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Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, talks about the evolving state of the digital economy and leaders can adopt more effective methods of motivation. He proposes three principles of increasing productivity: autonomy, mastery (alternatively, competence), and purpose. Detaching his propositions from the workplace context to universalize it, I shall discuss the impact of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on these three principles.

  • Autonomy refers to the amount of creativity and control we hold over individual expression without any external influence. It determines our independence in making choices and deciding the course of future actions.
  • Mastery or competence is our capacity to execute a task to the best of our ability without any external help. Our competency level governs how well we can perform when tasked with something.
  • Purpose alludes to the yearning within individuals to contribute to humankind’s more meaningful existence beyond the self.

Productivity is a cumulative result of the above three that motivation regulates. In the following section, we shall explore the differing impacts of the two kinds of motivation on individual performance: intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Is There a Third Option?

In a psychological study, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci found out that “conditions supportive of autonomy and competence reliably facilitated this vital expression of the human growth tendency, whereas conditions that controlled behavior and hindered perceived reflectance undermined its expression.”[4]

In other words, whether a task is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, it should not negatively impact our natural abilities.

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They also concluded that “Excessive control, nonoptimal challenges, and lack of connectedness…disrupt the inherent actualizing and organizational tendencies endowed by nature, and thus such factors result not only in the lack of initiative and responsibility but also in distress.” Simply put, unachievable challenges and emotional detachment can diminish individuals’ natural abilities and negatively impact performance.

Hence, it is safe to conclude that positive motivation is the key to performance enhancement without mentally, physically, or emotionally tiring out an individual. Whether it is at school, work, or social circles, superiors must ensure that an assigned task must be positively motivated in a way that warrants commitment, interest, and productivity. Hence, the type of motivation is not significant to performance as long as it does not hinder the three principles of productivity.

How Can You Positively Motivate Others?

Provide regular feedback: Individuals putting in efforts to make something happen, like hearing about their strengths and weaknesses. But before doing that, you must establish feedback-giving as a positive and encouraging process towards development within the social setup!

  • Set attainable goals: Asking too much from people negatively impacts performance as it does not respect their abilities. It can also be severely discouraging as it prevents individuals from giving their best, thinking that it is unattainable.
  • Challenge them by gradually increasing the level: Once you have gauged a person’s skill level, you can slowly give them more significant tasks to expand their abilities.
  • Inspire them: Setting an example is the best way to motivate others. You could perform your best to let people know what you expect from them.
  • Establish a trust relationship: Trust is the key to maintaining any human relationship, whether personal or professional. Ensuring the existence of this emotion comforts and inspires them to do better.
  • Maintain a healthy reward system: Humans cannot resist rewards, whether intrinsic or extrinsic. Maintaining a healthy reward system can propel others to work harder and productively.
  • Seek feedback from them: Finally, seeking feedback is just as important as giving it. Don’t forget to ask people’s opinions on the changes you can make to your approach!

Final Thoughts

Looking at your life with a bird’s eye view isn’t always easy. You sometimes need external motivators who see your potential and help you pave a path to success. But even when you have external motivators backing you up, paying close attention to your internal dialogue will help you cross the roadblocks.

And do not forget, motivation isn’t the goal in itself—it’s the pathway to a long journey where you achieve more milestones, and looking at the bird’s eye view of your life becomes easier. Have a happy journey!

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Featured photo credit: Stephen Leonardi via unsplash.com

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