What is secretly motivating your actions?


What motivates you?

For most people, the answer is easy but a little fuzzy: the things that are important to me, of course! I value my work, my boyfriend, my health, and that’s what gets me out of bed and through my day. 

You might go even further, and understand the specific things you value. I value being productive, learning and growing, reducing stress, and having deeper relationships. 

But in Before Happiness, happiness researcher Shawn Achor reveals that something else is probably motivating your actions besides values or meaning: hijackers.

“Our mental maps can become corrupted by hijackers, which are negative attitudes in our lives that lower our overall levels of happiness and derail our paths to success,” explains Achor. The problem is when they’re disguised as values or “meaning markers.”

Achor gives a few examples: wanting to lose weight because you don’t like yourself, a negative motivation that only makes you feel worse. Career advancement for the sake of climbing the ladder. Bosses who try to motivate with intimidation and fear. Worrying about negative comments on your upcoming book (or article, as it were…). 

In all these cases, we’re pushed forward by what feels like a motivator; we think we’re moving toward something we value. But our mindset is actually negative: we’re trying to avoid some painful reality we imagine, not seek a positive one. It reminds me of the idea that you should do things out of love, not fear.

“Fear is a map hijacker because when you activate the Jerk [the amygdala], you shut off the Thinker [the prefrontal cortex] and thus waste your valuable and finite brain resources on avoiding and fleeing from that fear instead of pursuing your goals,” he explains. 

I’m guilty of this myself sometimes. Although I value health, sometimes my health-oriented actions actually stem from a fear of being unhealthy. When I agonize over whether to have dessert and feel guilty afterward, that’s my fear talking. I’m strongly motivated by the idea of not wasting time – that’s a positive, right? – but it often leads to frustration and annoyance. And the desire to be perfect seems like a worthy goal until it compels me to do things I don’t really want to do just because I “should.” 

To discover your hijackers, Achor has a few suggestions: 

  • Write down 5 triggers that consistently lead to unproductive or destructive behavior
  • Ask yourself: Do certain activities tend to make you unhappy or distract you from your goals?

To identify my hijackers, it helped to think about the times when I feel strongly compelled to do certain things. 

Luckily, hijackers can be ditched and replaced with positive meaning. Instead of fearing disease, I can focus on my desire to be healthy, have energy, and stay fit. Instead of being annoyed at wasting time, I can focus on taking time for the things I really enjoy. Instead of being perfect, I can focus on being happy. 

Do you have any hijackers disguised as values?

Photo by Flickr user Olfiika