What is motivation and where does come from? Is it possible for a human being to operate without motivation, that is, simply on willpower, and still reach his or her goal? And what is the role of goals in motivation?

It is very difficult to study motivation as a phenomenon because it varies greatly from individual to individual and even from situation to situation. A good example is an employee who leaves work emails unread or is unable to read important meeting notes because he feels reading is uncomfortable or too time consuming for him. However, the same person may spend hours in the evening reading books. Therefore, this person has both non-existent and excellent  motivations for reading, completely dependent upon the situation.

It was only in 2014 that an American-led group of brain researchers found a pin-sized area in the pituitary gland at the back of the brain which is now thought to control, for example, the desire to exercise and other forms of motivation. This finding is very important for public health, as physical activity has been found to be one of the most effective non-medication methods for treating depression, which has become one of biggest diseases in Finland.

If researchers can find a way to stimulate this brain area and thus increase the motivation to exercise or practise healthier lifestyles, including improving eating habits, it may have a hugely positive effect on public health.

Goals and motivation

Brain research around motivation is only just beginning, so that pin-sized area can hardly be the only determinant of human motivation. How can we motivate ourselves and thus activate this small part of the brain?

Let’s go back to goals for a moment. The human being is intrinsically ambitious and no action or deed in everyday life is without purpose. It may seem funny, but try to think of even one activity you carry out in your life that doesn’t have a goal or aim. Lying on the sofa could be defined as an activity that has no purpose. However, when you ask yourself ‘why did I lie on the couch?’ the answer may be ‘because I had the desire to relax’. In this case, the goal set for the activity is relaxation.

The overriding goal in human life is to survive, and this motivates many basic activities, such as sleeping and eating. Of course, we do not think of this when we go to bed or cook.

When a goal is set, it must be followed by actions to achieve that goal. Motivation is again the driving force that leads to action. Thus, everyday human activity is a continuous chain of goals, activities and motivation. Most of this chain is unconsciously carried out and we do a lot of things with so-called autopilot on. In order to influence and strengthen our motivation over a long period, we need to understand the factors that affect it.

In practice, with great willpower and self-discipline, we can lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time, but if the ‘reward’ is being tired and powerless, our instinct to protect our body will begin to kick in and after a while we will slip into less disciplined eating habits. The endless self-discipline associated with weight loss may over time become an important means of anxiety management for some people.

There are many things that can cause anxiety: changes in one’s life, prolonged work-related stress, or just a great deal of worry about daily life. In this case, often the motive behind the harmful behaviour, or severe self-discipline, is the feeling of having control over one’s life, rather than the original, intended goal of weight loss. If, in such a situation, one’s own motives are not recognized, then the goals that are considered positive will not be achieved and often the original problem will become worse. Therefore, only by knowing the motives for our actions can we have a long-term, and especially positive, effect on our motivation and thus the achievement of our goals.


At its simplest, motivation can be thought of as a desire to do things or, on the other hand, as a driving force that provides everything. Steven Reiss, an American professor of psychology and psychiatry, studied motivation and categorized motivations into more than 400 different categories. Motives can be rewards, or the meeting of needs, desires or instincts, but can also, for example, be punishments. For example, a child may succeed in eating an unpleasant main course if there is a delicious dessert as a reward.

A physiological need is the motivation to drink natural-tasting water. If we eat too much during a meal, even if the physiological need/motive has already been satisfied, a new motive, that is, the pure desire to eat more delicious food than we really need, comes into the picture. In children, the example of a dessert can also be used as a punishment.  The likelihood of receiving a dessert may be endangered if the main course is not eaten. The motive behind the behaviour is something that we have no prior experience of or cannot be reasoned.

Instincts secure the survival of the individual until you learn through a model or from experience to take care of, for example, your own energy supply. Adult instincts related to eating have faded for the most part, but the newborn’s suckling reflex is instinctive and therefore provides the motivation to stay alive. Naturally, the newborn is practicing this unconsciously.

Internal and external motivations

You have probably heard talk about internal and external motivations. What do these concepts mean and how can we use this knowledge to achieve our own goals?

Internal motivation leads to action with goals that are not external rewards, that is, not financial compensation for work or admiring comments from other people when losing weight. In external motivation, the above-mentioned external rewards are the main reason for the pre-prize efforts. Thus, one has to find out what the expected reward is in order to distinguish whether the motivation is internal or external.

Why is it important to figure out the type of motivation? It is said that internal motivation lasts longer and thus it is better for achieving goals. Internal motivation in itself is a source of satisfaction and joy.
For someone with bad eating habits who is overweight, a lifestyle change is most probably driven mainly by external motivation. The individual may want to look better on the outside or want to reduce the health risks associated with being overweight, and therefore may want to start moving the components of his or her diet in a healthier direction.

If a person is not used to eating vegetables, for example, because of the unpleasant taste of vegetables, the addition of vegetables to the diet requires external motivation. In order for this external motivation to become internalized, it would be necessary to learn to genuinely enjoy healthy food, whereby the enjoyment of the food is in itself a reward and thus also becomes a motive for weight loss.

In coaching, this means that in a lifestyle change project the coach is also a supporter, because it is not enough for the coach to provide a ready-made diet with ingredients that are not familiar to the client. It is important to instruct the client to prepare food in a new, healthier, but at the same time delicious, way.

Motivation cycles

It is important to understand that long-term motivation, which offers prospects of permanent change, cannot emerge from nowhere, from being forced or because someone else wants it to be so. Often both coaches and clients think that a good coach will be able to motivate anyone to make big changes in their lives. In addition, one might think that the client is just a passive subject of change when, in fact, the client should actually be active in making the change.

Typically, the need for a lifestyle change comes from an external impetus that opens the eyes of the person to the need for change. It may be a problem detected at a health check-up or a spouse’s comment on the person’s lifestyle. Typically, the idea that ‘something needs be done’ is the initial impetus for the awakening of motivation. If the benefit of the change is not personal, there may be problems maintaining motivation. Self-reliance means that the change must be based on things that are perceived by oneself, such as health benefits, not just a spouse’s comments. If a personal benefit exists, the next step is to weigh up the possibility of changing.

In practice, change is regarded as possible, for example, if it is realistic enough. The steps to making a change must not be so big or so vast that faith in success is undermined. Often, yo-yo dieters have experienced many failures because their goals have been unrealistic. These failures undermine faith in one’s own ability. In such a situation the coach plays an important role in putting even the smallest moments of success on a pedestal in order to enhance the feeling of self-efficacy.

Failures are part of the change too, and they are very important moments in the transformation process. It is advisable to talk through failures carefully and consider with the client what measures should be taken in similar situations in the future. Faith in coping with failures also contributes to the feeling of self-efficacy.

When embarking on changes, people constantly weigh up the pros and cons. They assess how much they are willing to invest to achieve their goals, even if it isn’t always comfortable. Often on a working-day morning, when the alarm clock goes off, the temptation to stay in bed feels unbeatable. Few, however, give in to the temptation because keeping their job and the associated pay cheque are considered to be so valuable that a small amount of discomfort in the mornings is tolerable.

This sort of trade-off happens constantly during the course of making a lifestyle change and when the benefits are perceived to be greater than the disadvantages, the change is possible and the need for change becomes clearer. It is only through all of the above-mentioned steps that action is taken. The process of developing one’s motivation is undoubtedly a long one and has multiple stages, but it is at it’s best a very rewarding journey that can positively affect all areas of life.