Meaning and Motivation

I am very pleased to now be sharing with you this sub-page on the interaction between meaning in life and motivation.  Welcome.  If you have made it here, there is a good chance you already have a general grounding in motivation from reading what I've written about it on the first page I've posted on motivation. If you haven't read it or don't have it memorized, please take a moment to read it now.  It will probably help you best understand what follows. But just in case you don't have time or don't want to do that, I will try to present these thoughts in a manner that might work for you anyway. Let's see.   

I intend to devote our class time over the next couple of Saturdays to exploring the pivotal issue of how you can deliberately grow your motivation for weight management from what likely has been what Self-Determination Theory calls a controlled motivation to where it increasingly becomes what they call an autonomous motivation. Basically this means a process through which you deliberately adjust the engine you are running for weight management so it goes  from being something that basically involves you controlling your behaviors to being something where your behaviors emerge from a rather inexhaustible font of energy you use for doing what you do to be yourself. 

I've spoken of one of my Mongolian daughters, Kuala - a truly wonderful child (now college student) who spent her early years of life subsisting off of a rather traditional diet for poorer Mongolians - mostly mutton and potatoes and noodles - with a carrot or two thrown in from time to time. Forget what the horrible struggle I had with this diet (I undeliberately lost 35 pounds over the 2 years I was there), for Kuala this was food - it was home - it was comfort. And when I brought her sister and her to America with me, the most special of meals was when we got some mutton (thankfully sometimes some beef) and they covered it with a dumpling kind of casing they made - then steaming or frying it - and presto, what resulted was special - it was home - it was the very best food in the world for Kuala.  Then one day, Kuala saw the documentary "Food Inc." Well...

Kuala responded to the movie with an immediate vow that from then going forward, she was going to be a vegetarian. I watched. And here is what I saw. With a tremendous boost from her outrage at the treatment of animals in CAFO's (concentrated animal feeding operations), Kuala set about to refrain from eating meat and she set out to only engage in eating vegetables. She was 10. But she was determined. And I watched. At first, she struggled. The rest of us didn't stop eating meat - it's a major staple in my house - and so I watched her struggle with seeing us eat food she loved so much while she tried to content herself with twigs of lettuce, tofu (yuk), and other vegetables. She never whined. But I saw her looking wistfully at times at what her sister was able to eat - watching us eat her favorite foods. But using controlled motivation - by controlling herself from eating what she used to really ache for and by controlling herself to eat stuff she didn't particularly like, this determined girl stayed unerringly with her vow. I tell you all of this because I swear that as I watched, I swear I watched her slowly shift from controlled to autonomous motivation (where she is now still, some nine years later).

Why is this so important?

The simple answer is it is important for you to actively work at making this shift to autonomous motivation because if the motivation you are using to address a goal involves controlling yourself with discipline and effort, the energy you have for that will gradually or even suddenly deplete over time. It is one thing if your goal is to accomplish something that is time-limited - such as studying for a test or fasting for Lent. For short-term accomplishments, controlled motivation will generally be the very best motivation because the energy of controlled motivation tends to initially be very powerful (and you do need power to refrain from long standing behavior patterns while you simultaneously inaugurate and institute new behaviors). Another important positive about controlled motivation is that it generally is something you can institute relatively easily - you can decide to just "do it" and so you do it- as Kuala did. 

But if your goal (as in the goal of life-long healthy weight management) is something that involves going on forever, then controlled motivation isn't a good fit for you in the long run, because the energy demands of controlled motivation will eventually deplete you and you will grow tired of the deprivation - of controlling yourself all the time. In effect, you will run out of energy for your project and it very likely will not be long before you return to how you behaved when you are not controlling yourself. In Kuala's case, it would have meant she'd be rejoining the family in meat eating. In the case of weight management, it would mean you'd revert to your old behaviors and gain back the weight you've lost. I tell you, this is how it works. And so if I were at work on weight management right now, this is exactly where I would focus. I would primarily work at weight management with an eye to investing in building a relatively autonomous motivation for weight management.    

Why? Why is this how things tend to go? Why is it that I use controlled motivation for something that ultimately needs to be done with autonomous motivation?

Well to begin with, I would suggest to you that in large part the reason we approach weight management with controlled motivation is because it is logical and effective (and btw it is also because this is most often what we are told to do).  I mean, it sure makes sense to me that in order to go from eating and exercise behavior patterns that result in a weight problem, to eating and exercise behavior patterns that result in healthy weight management - it makes sense to me that you would have to control yourself.  Right? It makes sense you would have to force yourself to behave differently than you did before. Like Kuala. In fact, I truly do not see any other option for executing health behavior change. You have to change your behavior.  And to do that, controlled motivation is perfect. It is powerful. It is relatively easy to execute  And anytime you fall off the path and then have to get yourself back on the path, behavioral intervention is generally accomplished by controlled motivation. You white knuckle your way out of the unhealthy stuff and you force yourself to eat the healthy stuff.  It has to be.  You have to control yourself.  

See if this makes sense to you. I regard controlled motivation as something analogous to first gear on your car. First gear is the gear you need to get going. It is what you use to go from stopped - parked - to moving forward.  First gear (controlled motivation) tends to be the most powerful gear, producing the substantial torque you need to be able to pivot out of stasis - whether you simply are stopped on the side of the road or if you are stuck in the mud or sand somewhere. First gear is the gear you need when you need the most power. So there is value to controlled motivation. There really is. It is certainly what Kuala used when she was trying to become a vegetarian. But on the negative side of the ledger, first gear is also the gear that requires and burns the most  fuel. And so if you stay in first gear after you've gotten your car going, you will run out of fuel quite quickly and you may even burn up your engine. You can not make a long trip in first gear.  You have to shift to higher gears. 

How do you do that? And what does this have to do with meaning in life?

The first piece of the answer to that is sort of what they say about how a new behavior becomes a habit.  In motivational terminology, the way it works is that when you repeatedly produce a new health behavior, what happens over time is that this new thing you now do slowly becomes more and more something you are doing because that is what you do - instead of because that is what you are forcing yourself to do. In Kuala's case, as she kept going with her devoted vegetarian behavior, she gradually moved from being a girl who was "trying to be a vegetarian" into a girl who "is a vegetarian." By persisting with the new health behavior, it gradually became who she is. You see the same thing with people who are stopping smoking - they go from someone who is fighting hard to quite smoking to one day when they start regarding themself as someone who doesn't smoke - rather than someone who is quitting smoking.  "I am trying not to smoke" (controlled motivation) becomes "I don't smoke" (autonomous motivation). It takes loads of energy to force yourself not to do something you have routinely done as what you do and to instead produce new behaviors that you typically haven't done.  But when it gets to where this is what you do (we call it identification motivation), it works beautifully and it doesn't require anywhere near the amount of energy that controlled motivation requires.  You just go along doing what you do without having to control yourself. This is really important. 

You achieve identification over time through repeated controlled motivation behavior and the amount of time this takes can be reduced to some extent when you understand this is what you want to do and you nurse it along with intentionality - this is deliberate, active motivation management. Over time, Kuala grew to where I no longer saw her wistfully watching Tsagaanaa eat special holiday dumplings. She doesn't want it. It isn't her food. She has moved from controlled motivation that form of autonomous motivation where she no longer has to deprive herself of what she wants. She doesn't have to fight with herself. What she wants has changed. Who she is in this respect has changed. Identification motivation. Back to the car analogy, she is in a higher gear where part of her ride is propelled by a momentum accomplished by the repeated controlled motivation. That's part of why the higher gears need less energy, the momentum has an energy to it, as well...identification motivation.

But what does this have to do with meaning in life?  

Well, while attaining identification motivation is a really important thing, identification motivation is actually not as easily sustainable as the other kind of autonomous motivation: integrated motivation. 

Integrated motivation is an enhancement of identification motivation.  It isn't just doing what you do to be you. Instead, integrated motivation is doing what you do to be you in ways that feel really important to you. Note that in Kuala's case, she didn't just launch into vegetable behavior because she wanted to be a vegetarian. She launched into vegetarian behavior because animal rights and animal treatment became something really, really important to her.  She spoke about it. She wrote about it. Being a person who did not participate in behaviors that aligned with CAFO's was of deep importance to her. And with that - with the intensity of her devotion to animal welfare - her being a vegetarian became even stronger. And it continues to this day. 

Why is integrated motivation the most sustainable?  Please think about it.  We will discuss it.

What role does meaning in life have with integrated motivation. Please read the first four pages of the article below before coming to class. It will be what we discuss. If you want an A+ in the class, scan through the other articles as well.

See you then.