People generally don’t think of motivation as an emotion. Instead, they view motivation as a character development or innate personality trait that helps people succeed. However, if you take a biological perspective on motivation, you might reach a different conclusion.

Evolving concepts of “emotion” as a whole have caused the scientific community to beg the question — is motivation an emotion? Let’s take a look.

Evolving Concepts of Motivation as an Emotion a Biological Perspective

The Relationship Between Emotion and Motivation

To understand motivation as an emotion, we first have to establish what these two words actually mean. For starters, both concepts have the same origin story. Motivation and emotion share the Latin root word “movere”, which means “to move”. You can see this underlying theme in the Oxford Dictionary definitions of the two words:

  • Emotion: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others; an instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.
  • Motivation: the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way; the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

Even in their basic definitions, you can see a clear overlap between motivation and emotion. They both affect our state of mind and fuel our unique behaviours. They’re closely intertwined and often work together. For example, the emotion of happiness that we experience from succeeding at work or school motivates us to push for greater success.

Another key piece of the puzzle is the word “natural”. An intrinsic part of human nature is the desire to achieve things that lead to positive emotional outcomes. In another way of putting it, humans have the desire to achieve things that help them avoid negative emotional outcomes. From this perspective, emotion is a reward or punishment for our motivated behaviours.

Motivation’s Essential Role in the Biology of Emotion

The question of whether motivation is an emotion is ultimately rooted in biology. All of our thoughts and feelings come from nervous system activity. Our nerve cells or neurons in several parts of the brain activate our emotions when we encounter certain situations. The neocortex, amygdala and brain stem are the factories of our emotions and personalities.

Scientists believe that humans developed emotions as instinctive algorithms for survival. Negative emotions like fear and disgust evolved to help us recognize potential threats to our physical, psychological or social well-being. Positive emotions like joy and satisfaction evolved to help us gravitate toward productive habits instead of self-destructive ones.

As everyone knows from experience, this algorithm can often be unreliable. Our emotions can easily get out of control. The ability to regulate your emotions and harness them into efficient action is one of the most important survival behaviours you can master. If you can’t control your emotions, you can’t control your actions either.

So, what happens when your emotions are irrational or misguided? How can you reign them in and make them a strength instead of a weakness? That’s where motivation comes into play. When your natural emotional response is counterintuitive, you can use motivation to overcome that initial response, reject your impulses and find a better solution.

Overcoming laziness is the most common example of using motivation to defeat negative emotions. If you don’t feel like exercising or eating healthy, motivation can give you the psychological boost to complete these challenging tasks. Motivation helps you accept your negative emotions and take action despite them.

Motivation as an emotion can also be a consequence of your actions. If you’re angry, going for a walk or meditating can help you calm down and reclaim your happiness. Similarly, if you’re feeling depressed, physical activity will stimulate the release of endorphins and motivate you to stay active.

However, you can’t stay motivated forever. Motivation is always temporary, just like anger, happiness or any other fleeting feeling. It can change in a split second. Motivation’s fickle and unreliable nature is a clear indication of its close relationship with other emotions.

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Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

You can see another similarity between motivation and other emotions in how they manifest from day to day. Every emotion is a reaction to external or internal stimuli. Motivation is no different. In psychological terms, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation are the two main types of motivation.

  • Extrinsic motivation: motivation that comes from environmental factors, such as the fear of punishment, the desire to fit in with your peer group or the goal to reach a specific milestone in your career.
  • Intrinsic motivation: motivation that comes from within, such as the desire to complete a personal project or improve in a hobby. You want to do something simply because you enjoy doing it.

Motivation as an emotion might have a different societal interpretation compared to more common emotions like anger and happiness, but it still has the same nature. It’s a temporary biological response from external or internal situations that can significantly affect our behaviour. Emotions have a wide range of purposes, but they all have the same scientific design.

Motivation is Certainly an Emotion, Just a Unique One

Although you might view motivation differently, it’s still an emotion just like any other. However, motivation as an emotion serves a unique purpose. When our initial emotional responses fail, we can find motivation from extrinsic or intrinsic sources and overcome our bad impulses. It’s not a permanent way to deal with negative emotions, but it certainly helps in the short term.

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