The Motivating Power of Positive Values

by | Apr 15, 2024 | Featured, Lifestyle

Have you ever set a goal—then struggled to find the motivation to achieve it? Perhaps the goal wasn’t a good fit for you; maybe it conflicted with your other values, wasn’t life-serving, or didn’t make good use of your skills and interests. But sometimes the goal is good and yet you still struggle. There can be multiple reasons for this, but one is that, in choosing a particular goal, you may not actually be pursuing a positive value, but avoiding a disvalue.

For example, consider a person who comes to work early every day. On the surface, this seems like goal-directed behavior. But what’s the motivation? If the employee is doing this because he’s afraid to lose his job, then he’s actually avoiding the disvalue of being jobless rather than pursuing the many values a productive career offers (self-esteem, purpose, skill-building, creating goods or services you care about, and so on). Other common disvalues include disappointing someone (your parents, your partner, your boss, or anyone whose opinion you care about), the feeling of failure, and instability in your income or career.

But disvalues are not anywhere near as motivating or useful as values are. As John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, put it, “Your fear of death is not a love of life and will not give you the knowledge needed to keep it.” This makes sense if we consider why we need values in the first place. Values are the things we act to gain or keep, and many of them are essential for our survival and flourishing. Basic material values, such as food and shelter, nourish our bodies and keep us safe. Likewise, spiritual (nonphysical) values, which can range from self-esteem to romantic love to a successful career, provide us with the conviction that we are worthy of and able to achieve success and happiness, emotional support and inspiration, purpose and skills, and so on. These are some of the things that enable us to survive and thrive. 

So it’s not surprising that empirical studies, such as the one by Ronald S. Friedman and Jens Förster, suggest that pursuing an incentive is more motivating than avoiding a punishment—even when the incentive is relatively insignificant. In their study, participants were given a printed maze to guide an image of a mouse through. The participants whose mouse was aiming for an image of cheese at the end of the maze consistently finished their mazes faster than those whose mice were being pursued by an image of an owl. The researchers concluded that those pursuing an incentive (an imaginary piece of cheese) were more motivated and better at achieving their goal than those who were avoiding a negative outcome (an imaginary owl). Pursuing a value that we explicitly identify as good for our life makes it much easier to achieve our goals and improve our lives.

Identifying our motives requires honest introspection, which isn’t always easy. But when we do so, we can begin to see when our actual motives are avoiding a disvalue rather than pursuing a value, reassess those areas of our lives, and either adjust our goals or reframe them in a more positive manner. For a simple example, if you’re exercising to avoid gaining weight and to prevent diseases, reframe this activity as a means to achieve a toned look and to maximize your health and longevity. Applying this framework to my work took me from working long hours at stable jobs I didn’t care much about (avoiding the disvalue of financial instability) to freelancing to my current career, in which I get to promote the values I care about by doing things I didn’t even know I could turn into a career (writing and speaking). 

Get more motivated by pursuing positive goals, and watch how much more awesome your life becomes.

On Solid Ground is a community blog where we publish articles by guest contributors as well as by the staff and officers of OSI. The ideas offered by guest contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the ideas of the staff or officers of OSI. Likewise, the ideas offered by people employed by OSI are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of others in the organization.

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