Motivation and What Really Drives Human Behavior

Motivation for Change

The topic of motivation is frequently discussed in the context of change.

Many of us join a gym or a training program; others enter therapy or coaching because we desire change. But change is rarely a simple or a linear process. Part of the reason has to do with how difficult it is to find the motivation to engage in activities that are not intrinsically motivating.

When an activity is autotelic, or rewarding and interesting in its own right, we do it for the sheer enjoyment of it and motivation is hardly necessary (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.

Eckhart Tolle

More often than not, however, what we want to change requires self-control to abstain from behaviors that don’t serve us but are enjoyable. Not to mention that commitment is required to pursue these often challenging and unrewarding activities that move us in the direction of a valued outcome.

Deci and Ryan (1995), who studied autonomous self-regulation, suggested that we need to move away from extrinsically motivated action, (e.g., when we have to do something because we fear consequences), and toward introjected and even fully self-determined regulation, where we value the new behavior and align it with other aspects of our life.

See our blog post entitled What is Motivation to learn more about self-motivation.

“Stage-based” approaches to behavioral changes have proven to be particularly effective in increasing motivation toward the pursuit of difficult and non-intrinsically motivating goals as they allow for realistic expectations of progress (Zimmerman, Olsen, & Bosworth, 2000).

The Stages of Change model of Prochaska, et al. (DiClemente, & Prochaska, 1998), also known as the Trans-theoretical Model of Change (TMC), is one such approach commonly used in clinical settings. In this model, change is regarded as gradual, sequential, and controllable. Its real-world applications are seen in motivational interviewing techniques, a client-centered method of facilitating change.

Here motivation is increased together with readiness for change which is determined by our:

  • Willingness to change.
  • Confidence in making the desire changed.
  • Actions taken to make the change.

See our article on Motivational Interviewing for an in-depth analysis of this model of change and its many applications.

Happiness and Human Motivation

What is true happinessCan happiness be a motivating factor?

The answer to that question depends both on how we define happiness and whom we ask.

Thanks to the rapidly growing research in positive psychology, the science behind what makes life worth living, we know a lot about what makes us happy and what leads to psychological wellbeing. There is also plenty of evidence that positive subjective experiences contribute to increased motivation.

From Barbara Fredrickson’s (2004) research on how positive emotions broaden our perception and increase positive affect and wellbeing to the research of Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer (2011) that shows how happy employees are more productive, we can see how cultivating optimism and positive emotions can serve an adaptive role and be a distinct motivational factor.

Those who feel good or show positive affect are:

  • more creative (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005),
  • help others more (Feingold, 1983),
  • persistent in the face of failure (Erez & Isen, 2002; Kavanagh, 1987),
  • make decisions efficiently (Schwartz et al., 2002), and
  • show high intrinsic motivation (Graef et al., 1983).

Studies show that short-term positive affect helps us be successful in many areas in our lives, including marriage, friendship, income, work, and health (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).

Model of the broaden-and-build theory

Model of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press, Fredrickson, and Cohn (2008, Figure 48.1) [17]. Figure 2. Conceptual framework of the study.

The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power or goodness.

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman (2002) argued that genuine happiness and life satisfaction have little to do with pleasure, and much to do with developing personal strengths and character. If cognition operates in the service of motivation (Vohs & Baumeister, 2011), then developing personal strengths and character should lead to increased motivation.

When talking about eudaimonia as a form of wellbeing, the recurring concepts include meaning, higher inspiration, connection, and mastery (David, Boniwell, & Ayers, 2014), all attributes related to cognitive mechanisms of motivation.

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

These higher motives and their behavioral expressions can also be described as consequences of eudaimonia. According to Haidt (2000), elevating experiences can motivate virtuous behavior.

Seligman (2002) called it a higher pleasure, and Maslow (1973) described a eudemonic person as autonomous, accepting of self, positively relating to others, and possessing a sense of mastery in all of life’s domains (David, Boniwell, & Ayers, 2014). And as this description indicates, these individuals would be highly motivated.

Positive psychology looks at a person and asks, “What could be?” Most importantly, however, positive psychology brings attention to the proactive building of personal strengths and competencies, and these cannot be bad for motivation.


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