Dopamine and Motivation

Dopamine and Motivation

We hear all the time about dopamine’s role in pleasure; it’s the sex, drugs, and-rock ‘n roll hormone. Recent science, however, is leading us to reconsider what role dopamine plays in our lives. Scientists noticed that people showed higher levels of dopamine when they were going through experiences that triggered their PTSD, for example, something that is clearly the opposite of a pleasurable experience. What role does dopamine really play, then, and how did we get it so backwards?

The current view of dopamine is that it’s not something that gives you pleasure; rather, it’s something that signals “motivational salience”. Motivational salience is, in short, how motivated you are to do a particular thing, versus any other number of things that you could do. A lot of different factors can affect motivational salience; the perceived rewards for completing an activity, it’s perceived associated risks, and the amount of time and energy it will take to complete the task. It’s easy to see, then, why dopamine could be seen as the “pleasure” hormone; you’re flooded with dopamine when you do drugs, which motivates you to…do more drugs. This might also be why addictive behaviours are so intimately linked with dopamine; you’re rewired to be more motivated to do the addictive behaviours every time you do them. Dopamine is released to convince you to take action or avoid action.

Can we use this new understanding of dopamine to change our motivational structures? Almost certainly. Consider this: when something seems daunting, the dopamine in your system might not be operating in a way that makes the task seem doable. This might mean that the dopamine in your brain isn’t in the right places, or that it’s insufficient to complete the task; the brain is too complex for me to begin riffing on all the reasons the dopamine might not be right here. What is true, however, is that while your dopamine levels might not be right to do one task, it doesn’t mean their not right to do any task. You’ve probably heard the phrase “when something is too big, break it down into bite-sized pieces” before. When you do this, motivational salience changes. A given project seems more simple to complete when it’s just one step; that means less effort is going to be required. The end of the step isn’t just “one step accomplished” when it’s a goal; finishing the step is an end into itself. That means there’s greater perceived reward. This changes the calculations, and may allow you to complete the bite-sized piece. Once that piece is complete, you’re feeling good, you have more energy, and the rest of the project seems less daunting. This new conceptualization of dopamine means you never have to feel “lazy”; you simply have to reorient yourself so that your goals are aligned with your neurochemistry.

This new understanding of dopamine is fresh, and it should be noted that I’m not a scientist, though I tried to portray everything as accurately as possible. What I do know is that motivating yourself and your team is possible, though sometimes it takes a fresh, outside concept to make motivation management. A great way of getting these concepts is to have a motivational speaker work with your organization; a new framework can mean a new state of mind, and a fresh state of mind can make all the difference.