Wanting something isn’t all there is to motivation: motivation requires knowledge of what you need to do, effort, and attention, for instance. Yet desiring something–organization, health, success, an achievement–is the most basic and essential ingredient of motivation.
I haven’t written much about the importance of desire in motivation because the connection seems so basic and obvious, but recently I’ve been realizing that desire isn’t as simple as it has seemed to me.
Desires change constantly
It seems we tend to think of our desires as being very consistent over time, but in truth they can expand to fill our whole attention or dwindle away to nothing in just a few moments. For example, a person might wake up in the morning with a firm resolution to start getting really fit, but by three in the afternoon, after a particularly wearing day, care about nothing so much as chocolate, or someone might be driven to rise to the top of her profession one week and perfectly content in her current position the next.
It shouldn’t be surprising that our desires change so much and so quickly: desire is influenced by both physiology (hunger signals, tiredness, the dopamine rush of a pleasurable experience, and so on) and thinking (for instance, admiring what someone else has achieved or daydreaming about the future). Our attention, physiological state, current thoughts, immediate environment, communication from others, and other factors can change from moment to moment.
The thing to take away from this realization that desires change is that sometimes when willpower falters, the root problem is that for that moment we just don’t care about the goal.
Affecting our own desires
Knowing that our desires change and that losing desire for a goal tends to cause willpower to go down the tubes leads us to the conclusion that sometimes we will want to influence our own desires. This sounds very strange: if we don’t want something, why would we expend effort to make ourselves want it? The key realization here is that what we desire at any given moment isn’t necessarily based on what will make us feel happy and fulfilled.
For instance, I might very much want to stay up all night and watch a Gilligan’s Island marathon, but being exhausted for the next day or several days combined with the negative thoughts and feelings from knowing I was sabotaging myself would not make me happy no matter how much I wanted to stay up.
In fact, it might be fair to say that getting what we tend to desire usually doesn’t lead to lasting happiness (see my article on lottery winners, “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness,” and my article on hedonic adaptation, “Why Long-Term Happiness Levels Tend to Stay the Same.”) The exception is when we desire something that provides long-term benefits, like health or rewarding work situations. Therefore being happy, fulfilled, and empowered often means changing what we desire.
How to change what we want
Changing our own desires may sound like a strange and tricky process, but in fact we do it all the time by focusing our attention. We may choose to read about Dr. Martin Luther King and begin to feel ourselves wanting to make a positive difference in the world. We may choose to walk into an electronics store to see what the new gadgets are and become possessed for the overwhelming desire for a 3D television. We may start reading about rollerblading and find ourselves wanting to get more active.
Other articles on this site talk about changing our environment and making good connections with other people to encourage ourselves toward our goals, and these are good external ways to influence our desires. But what it often comes down to is what we choose to think about. That moment of decision during which I have the choice “Stop in at the electronics store, or pull over at the park and go for a walk?” will change not only my environment but what I have available to focus on. The moment in the restaurant when I choose to look carefully at the “heart healthy options” on the one hand or “deep fried specialties” on the other will influence what I begin to be interested in ordering.
And the wonderful thing about changing our attention is that while it takes a momentary effort, when we do it we’re not yet to the point of strongly desiring something, so it doesn’t take the kind of complete reorientation we face when we already want something but know that it isn’t a good choice.
So while focusing attention and influencing our own desires won’t on its own provide all of the motivation we’ll ever need, it is one of the simplest and yet most powerful ways of altering our minds for our own benefit.