Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Symptom or Cause

Is a lack of motivation and drive a symptom of stress or a cause of it?

I’ve met psychologists who argue that feeling low in energy and drive can result from stress. Whilst in many cases that’s undoubtedly true, it is also worth considering it the other way round. If you’re not motivated in what you do you will be far more likely to perceive a demanding workload as stressful and damaging to your work-life balance.

Think of athletes and entrepreneurs who drive themselves to achieve goals. Their self-imposed pressure leads them to experience the positive side of stress. Their motivation brings energy, enthusiasm and a good degree of resilience to stress.  There are two kinds of self-motivation and its worth bearing in mind that they need to be in balance to experience the benefits.

Long-term motivation is about achievement of goals and rewards. We are driven by where we want to get to and the rewards of getting there. But this on its own is never enough. If you doubt this think of the worst job you can imagine and ask yourself would you be willing to do it for a year for the promise of a pot of gold at the end?

The second type of motivation is short-term and in the moment. It comes from enjoying what you do, feeling valued, feeling useful, knowing there’s a meaning in what you do and that you are making a difference.  For example, the athlete needs the drive to achieve long-term goals, but to succeed they also need to love running.

You know when you have the balance right between these two motivations. You arrive home from a day’s work feeling satisfied. It’s the difference between feeling exhausted but happy as opposed to worn out and frazzled. 

Feeling Hopeful

Friday 29th April was a momentous day for Britain. Of course there were cynics, but overall the mood was one of joy, pride and hope for the future. Kate Middleton from her relatively “ordinary” background has catalysed a new, fresh approach for the monarchy and given the country hope. As well as all the hopeful headlines across the newspapers in the last few weeks, the Duke of York has been widely quoted as saying that the royal wedding would help to “inject a bit of hope” into the country.

But what is hope – and is it a virtue?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “A feeling of desire for a particular thing to happen” – a positive outcome related to events or circumstances in your life.

Without hope there is no reason to believe that your life can be better in any way. Hopeful people never give up on their quest to improve life’s circumstances. But hope without action isn’t much good. We can’t lie in bed all day and expect our lives to take on some miraculous change! And while hope is part of a positive mindset, which has to be good, hope on its own isn’t necessarily a virtue.

The American Psychologist Martin Seligman has conducted years of research into the areas of hope and optimism and points out that hope on its own it is not enough to remedy depression, failure and ill-health. Its limitations include:

•    preventing us from seeing reality with clarity
•    helping some people evade responsibility for their own failures
•    working better in some communities and cultures than in others

These limitations do not wipe out the advantages of hope, but they help to put it in perspective. Natural pessimists are taught to argue against negative thoughts and maybe it would be useful for naturally hopeful people to give themselves a reality check – and in some ways learn from the more pessimistic or cynical around us.

This would be like having hope with our eyes open, using pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to stay in its dark, downward spiral.

The Duke of York may have been right about the royal wedding injecting hope into the country; however we still have unemployment, crime rates and a health crisis to deal with. So let’s be hopeful with our eyes keenly open to what needs to be done.

I leave you with a favourite quote of mine from the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption where even prisoners can escape the inhumanity of their existence by maintaining a little hope:

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”