A “Whole Brain” Theory of Human Motivation – Part 5: Through the Lens of Mental Healthiness

Here are the reasons why internal motivation is best:

1) It is aligned with our most humanistic capacities, not our more animalistic tendencies.

2) It reinforces optimal personal growth, creating maturity and greater competency over time.

3) The more we are aligned with our best self and our growing self, we naturally experience positive connections with others.

4) In integrating all these different positive outcomes, it reinforces our lifelong health and wellbeing.

In this final entry in this series on human motivation, let’s bring all these principles together.

The late American Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg (1934 – 2015), a student of Carl Rogers and a contributor to the Humanistic Psychology movement, connected the relationship between needs and feelings. Whereas needs are the basis of human motivation, feelings are the mechanism. He also emphasized how these needs and feelings play out in our relationships, and developed a style of communication that was built on the insight that since we all have the same basic human needs, there was something relatable we could always connect to in each other. In order to facilitate this connection, he taught that the expression of feelings gave clues as to what our underlying needs were, and that when we were able to share these needs, that people experienced empathy. The giver of empathy truly experienced what the other was going through, and the recipient felt “felt.” Once empathy was established, there was then a natural and shared motivation to help meet that person’s underlying need. Empathy is one of our internal motivations.

Looking again at the human brain, whereas Behaviorism’s external motivators act upon the “lower” aspects of our abilities, what Marshall Rosenberg did not know when he first formulated this theories but is now clear, is that his Nonviolent Communication was built on the highest abilities that our human minds are capable of. Self-awareness. Emotional regulation. Impulse control. Empathy. Higher order reasoning. Prospection. Coordination and synthesis of thoughts, feelings, and drives. Creative problem solving. Intuition. All of these are necessary to successfully connect at this deep and meaningful level – both within ourselves and with others. Also, the more that we operate in this region of our mind, the more relationally oriented we become. Dan Siegel, a Psychiatrist and founder of the multidisciplinary field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, aka Relationship Science, describes a model of health as being all of the differentiated functions of this region of the brain functioning optimally, purposefully, and together in harmony – what he calls integration. He also describes this healthful state as being naturally open and oriented towards others, compelling us to want to connect, blurring the lines between our needs and wanting to meet the needs of others. As we integrate our self identity – “me,” and our connections with others – “we,” we form what he has coined a healthy “mwe.”

Continuing this focus on health, when we describe anything as being “healthy,” whether a person, a plant, a motivation or strategy – the defining characteristics of healthiness, regardless of context, are the qualities of growth, sustainability, purposefulness, integration, and positivity. Looking at motivation from this health-oriented perspective also helps us to differentiate why externally driven strategies are less healthy than positive ones, because unhealthy strategies may have some of these qualities but not all. For instance:

They may cause growth for awhile, but are ultimately unsustainable without serious consequences – such as the use of performance enhancing drugs to quickly build muscle, at the expense of other aspects of physical and mental health.

They may be sustainable, but also cause stagnation and suffering – like when avoidance is used as a lifelong coping mechanism for anxiety.

They may cause growth, be sustainable, and be purposeful, but may also create negative collateral outcomes – such as when our primary motive is to seek the approval of others, and as a result we don’t experience the natural joys of accomplishment through our achievements.

They may allow us to achieve, to feel good in the present, and press forward in life, but may deplete or harm the resources we used to get ahead – like in any situation where someone’s said “the ends justify the means” and believed it.

They may feel good in the short term, but when these strategies are used excessively, they eventually cause regression, deterioration, or even death – this is the nature of addiction.

One reason why internal motivation is healthy is because of its primary resource – emotion, the sustainable and renewable internal feelings that are common to our shared human experience. Some of these feelings are positive, in the sense that they feel good. A sense of accomplishment. Feelings of competency. Experiences of “flow.” Meaningfulness. Gratitude. Empathy. Love. In fact, when we look at the purpose and value of emotion, long lasting positive emotions are often experienced when we are engaging in inherently healthy activities. Like Rosenberg’s observations, positive feelings come from fulfilled needs. These feelings send signals through our brain and body, and are stored in our memories, bringing awareness to our mind that these are the types of experiences that we should do again. In essence, positive feelings create a cycle of internal motivation to repeat healthy behaviors.

Though the experience is quite the opposite, unpleasant feelings lead us towards healthy behaviors as well. In the same way that hunger alerts us to our need for sustenance and thirst alerts us to our need to hydrate, unpleasant emotions are similarly purposeful aversive signals that alert us of problems, and direct us to address our needs. For instance:

Anxiety tells us we may be in harm’s way, and the physical and mental changes that occur are meant to help us get out of danger by either leaving a situation, or solving the problem – our “fight or flight” response.

Loneliness alerts us that we have a need for relationships, and creates a sense of longing and an awareness of emptiness, motivating us to reach out and make a connection with others.

Misery causes us to feel a psychological discomfort while ruminating on our painful circumstances, creating a motivation to overcome our resistance, so that we become willing to make meaningful changes in our lives.

Guilt shows up when we’ve realized we made a mistake that can still be corrected, and creates a discomfort that urges us towards fixing the problem, sooner rather than later.

Regret lingers when we’ve made a mistake that we can’t fix, but transforms itself over time into a useful maturity and a persistent self-awareness, so that we are less likely to repeat the same mistake in the future.

As each of these unpleasant feelings moves us towards resolution of our problems, the unpleasantness subsides and oftentimes is replaced with positive feelings of relief, gratefulness, accomplishment, or joy. This “reward” in turn helps us recognize that using our unpleasant feelings to solve our problems was inherently good for us, and that we should consider using this strategy again in the future. A full circle of emotion, using our “whole brain,” reinforcing that these feelings serve as an important contributor towards health, whether those emotions feel good or feel bad. Positive feelings keep us on the path of health, unpleasant feelings guide us back. If we follow these feelings, our needs are met, and we experience all the aspects of health – growth, sustainability, purposefulness, integration and positivity. Feelings, all of them, are the mechanism of internal motivation.

In the first few parts of this series, we learned about the different theories of human motivation from Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Abraham Maslow, and Marshall Rosenberg. But as they formed their theories, they didn’t have access to the knowledge that we now have through Neuroscience and contemporary Psychology research. However, their intuitive insights, developed though detailed observation of the whole range of human experience, from at our worst to at our best, helped them to correctly identify the different parts to the puzzle as to how we are motivated. Freud correctly surmised that much of our human behavior is motivated by forces from our past and many times from places outside of our awareness, which we now understand as being a combination of implicit and explicit memories and the beliefs formed through these experiences. He also understood that there were differentiated parts of our mind with sometimes competing goals, and that we needed to be aware of all of them to exercise our best intentions. B.F. Skinner and the Behaviorists correctly identified that our human behavior can be manipulated through outside forces, but underestimated the costs of these strategies and minimized our human capacities to override our more primitive vulnerabilities. Abraham Maslow understood that people are motivated to meet their own needs, and that there is a natural desire to grow towards health. Marshall Rosenberg expanded upon the interconnectivity between our needs and feelings, and how they are influenced by our relationships with others (see part 1part 2, and part 3).

Our present understanding of how the human mind works through research helps us better understand how these different theories interconnect, and now allows us to reliably understand what is optimal in terms of our highest abilities. We now know that it’s the development of our prefrontal cortex that makes us human, and that this part of the brain coordinates and integrates all the functions of our brain and body. More recent research on motivation, such as the work of Deci and Ryan and their Self-Determination Theory also validate the needs based concept and the value of relationships – that we are motivated towards health through our universal need for autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Positive Psychology also supports this view, connecting positive emotions, relationships, and accomplishment (see part 4 and here). So does Dan Siegel’s Interpersonal Neurobiology – encouraging a fully realized “me” (competency in autonomy) integrated with a connected “we” (competency in relatedness).

Viewing all of this through a lens of healthiness and therefore grounding these truths in our daily lives, we can see how knowing how to best use our feelings guides us towards beneficial behaviors, as our needs are met and in turn we remain fulfilled. Our higher order capacities also compel us to connect deeply with others, and so health is inextricably linked to our motivation to have fulfilling relationships. Being primarily influenced by outside forces diminishes our optimal human experience and ultimately causes disconnect and conflict, stagnation or deterioration, confusion or dysfunction. The more that we understand our needs and the needs of others, and the more effective we are at best using our emotions, the more likely we are to stay on the path of PERMANENT healthiness as our lives inevitably change and we continue to grow throughout our lifespan. Therefore, our best motivation comes from the best of our human abilities.

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