This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Source" by Tara Swart. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the science behind motivation? Where does motivation come from?

According to The Source by Tara Swart, motivation is closely tied to emotional intelligence. Motivation helps drive us forward when things get difficult, so learning to tap into it will ensure that you’ll have the resilience to keep progressing no matter what challenges you face.

Check out how science explains motivation.

Motivation as a Mode of Thinking

To fully understand the science behind motivation, you must know where it originates from. Your motivation often comes directly from your emotions. Swart says that survival emotions are negative motivators, while attachment emotions act as positive motivators. You can use both positive and negative motivators to help you move forward: For example, if your goal is to earn a promotion at work, you might be motivated both by the excitement of taking on a new role (positive motivator) and the fear of not having enough money to get by in your current position (negative motivator). 

(Shortform note: While Swart distinguishes between positive and negative motivators, others describe motivation as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is external, driving you to do something in order to achieve a reward or escape a punishment. Intrinsic motivation is internal, and it occurs when you find an activity personally rewarding without any external influence. In our example above, the fear of not having enough money serves as an extrinsic motivator because you’re attempting to avoid a negative external experience, but being eager to take on a new role is intrinsically motivating because you’re looking forward to this new position for its own sake.)

However, cautions Swart, be careful not to rely too much on negative motivators, which can override your positive motivators and cause you to self-destruct: If your fear of having too little money in your current job becomes your sole motivator, you might become so anxious that your work performance suffers, leading you to be passed over for the promotion. When you begin to feel like negative emotions are weighing you down rather than propelling you, you need to challenge them. 

(Shortform note: In The Purpose Driven Life, Christian pastor Rick Warren contends that negative emotions like guilt, fear, and the need for approval serve as ineffective motivators that create conflict in your life and argues for the value of a single, positive, faith-based motivator to guide everything you do. If you find yourself overwhelmed with conflicting motivators, simplifying these into a single purpose might help you tap into your motivation more effectively.)

Swart writes that you can challenge your negative motivators by reframing them through a different perspective. Take a step back from the problems that are motivating you and consider them through a wider lens. While your problems are valid and meaningful, remember that everyone in the world faces difficult situations, and there will always be people whose situations are worse than yours. Think about how your problem will feel five years from now: Chances are good it won’t matter anymore. These practices help depersonalize your problems so they have less sway over you and your motivation. 

(Shortform note: Others recommend talking with others as a way to depersonalize or minimize your problems so they don’t interfere with your motivation. However, people with certain psychiatric conditions might need medical assistance to improve motivation. This includes those with disorders of diminished motivation, who may have a hard time reaching goals due to apathy (considered the mildest syndrome), abulia, or akinetic mutism (considered the most severe syndrome). These disorders can be caused by things like brain injury or stroke, neurodegenerative diseases, or psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia.)

The Science Behind Motivation: What Gives You Drive?

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  • How to get the most out of your brain by tapping into its immense power
  • How to use the major principles of the Law of Attraction
  • The four-step process to change your life

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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