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Motivation and Depression: What the Research Tells Us

Many of us struggle with motivation problems, and having depression really can make this problem a whole lot worse. After all, a lack of motivation or decreased motivation is one of the hallmark symptoms that we as therapists use to diagnose depression. So if you find that your depression is lagging, you are not alone. And this can be made worse by some of the other symptoms of depression like fatigue, low energy, or low self-esteem.

There are some simple things you can do to help. Think of the self-care things that I regularly tout in this blog: regular exercise, a healthy diet, sleeping 7-8 hours per night, and being kind to yourself are some of the things that immediately come to mind. This article will dig a little deeper into the research surrounding motivation, so I hope you find something useful here to help.

Why is a Lack of Motivation so Tied to Depression?

Depression is one of the leading causes of a decrease in motivation and it all goes back to neurotransmitters. I think most of us are aware that an imbalance in these brain chemicals is thought to be behind depression. The reason is because neurotransmitters control many functions of our minds and bodies. For instance, they manage:

  • sleep

  • appetite

  • mood

  • level of alertness

  • reward centers

  • attention and concentration

  • focus

  • muscles control

  • learning

  • memory

Notice how this list so closely resembles a list of depression symptoms?

Research on Motivation

There is a whole school of study within psychology on motivation and so a lot of research happens on this subject. I can't possibly go into it all here, but below you will find some of the research that I found to be really interesting.

What comes First- Action or Motivation?

Have you ever found yourself sitting in front of the TV waiting for motivation to hit you to get started on your latest homework assignment, or to start mowing the lawn, or to call your mother? Chances are, that motivation never came. This illustrates one of the common misconceptions many of us hold about motivation- that motivation will come to us like magic and lead us to start some activity.

The truth is that if we can somehow start the activity, it will bring us the motivation we need to complete it. Motivation rarely comes first, and it certainly more consistently comes as a result of action taken. The good news is that we can use this to our advantage! If you start the task or activity that you are trying to get done, you will become more motivated to do the task, which will in turn help you to continue working on the task.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Rewards

Of course, things being as they are, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Research has found that it really helps if the activity is something that interests you and brings out your curiosity. This is what is known as being intrinsically motivating. That is, you will be rewarded simply by doing the activity, and therefore, you will be more motivated to complete the activity.

Extrinsic rewards can work as well, but the motivational effects of these types of rewards tend to be shorter-lasting. For a good example of an extrinsic reward, think of a parent paying their child to get good grades, or a boss giving a day off for work performed well. An intrinsic reward on the other hand, is feeling good after you’ve cleaned the house, or self-praise after getting that job done at work. The motivation from intrinsic rewards will more consistently reward you, reward you stronger, and your motivation will continue for longer.

So to have this principle work for you, you will want to build these types of intrinsic rewards into your activities as much as possible for the best effect. For example, if you want to exercise more, find an exercise that you enjoy like swimming or playing basketball.


Motivation and Your Values

The next idea I wanted to touch on is the idea that in order for an activity to be motivating, it needs to fit in with our values. So even if you are rewarded for doing a task, if it doesn’t follow along with your values and beliefs, you will not be very motivated to complete the task, and visa versa. Say for example, you greatly value family. Activities that honor this value like going on a family vacation, or saving money for a bigger house, will be things that you are motivated to do. And activities that go against this value such as cheating on your spouse, or taking a job that keeps you away from your family for weeks at a time would most likely not be very motivating.

Of course, this can be complicated if you have values that oppose each other. If, for example, you have a strong value to make money and be self-sufficient, that job taking you away from your family might be a whole lot more motivating if it pays well.

Mastery vs Performance Goals

Another factor that can influence your level of motivation is what type of goal or learning is the person attempting. In this area, researcher talk about 2 different types of goals: mastery vs performance goals. Mastery goals are when a person is trying to learn or to master the material, as opposed to performance goals which is when a person is comparing his performance to others. So think of Mastery goals as when you are trying to learn to play the piano because you really want to be able to play your favorite music on it. and performance goals would then be when you practice the piano to be better than your sister is.

Studies show that whereas performance-type goals enhance short-term learning, mastery goals enhance long-term learning.

We can use both of these to our advantage depending on the situation. For instance, if you are trying to do something that you really don't care all that much about, like for me, cleaning the house, then you can set up some sort of performance goal for yourself to increase your motivation. An example would be to challenge yourself to clean the house for 30 min straight to see if you can do more than you did yesterday in the same amount of time.

Closing Thoughts

So, what does all of this mean for us? Personally, I think the most important takeaway is that action is the key to motivation. Figure out what your values are, then get started on some committed, value-orientated action.

If you are having trouble motivating yourself or are feeling down and want someone to talk to, please follow the link for depression treatment. I’d love to hear from you!


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