Methods of motivation: Positive and negative motivation

Human beings are naturally motivated towards pleasure and away from pain. We are reward-seeking organisms and everything that we do contains an inherent reward in it, conscious or unconscious, perceived or real.

For example, if you are a non-smoker you might think that smoking is a harmful and a reward-less activity but to a smoker, it might be a useful way to get rid of his anxiety (a reward indeed). So no matter how fruitless or harmful an activity may seem to be, to a person doing it there is some kind of a reward in it or it’s warding off some kind of pain (which in itself is a reward).

Based on this information, there are two ways by which we can motivate ourselves.

man running

Positive motivation (rewards)

It is the type of motivation that you use when you perform an activity to gain a reward that usually lies in the future. This future may be immediate or distant. The expectation of a reward is what drives you. Visualizing your ideal future in which you have received your reward is a great way to positively motivate yourself.


We humans don’t find any difficulty in doing things that result in immediate, short-term rewards (like eating an ice-cream) but when it comes to rewards that are obtained by pursuing long-term goals, we find attaining them a Herculean task. Well, there’s an evolutionary reason behind that which I’ve explained here.

The most important thing that matters when it comes to pursuing rewards that lie somewhere in the distant future is faith- faith in your abilities and faith in the activities that you are performing to attain those rewards. After all, if you find that your current activities aren’t taking you anywhere, you’ll quickly become demotivated.

If that happens then the best way to become motivated again is to find a reward in the activities themselves!

Do you love doing what you do? Then that is reward enough for you to keep doing it! That’s a sure-fire way to not quit on long-term goals that matter to you even if you seem to be going nowhere. Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t change your ways in order to find out what works but all I’m saying is whatever you do, make sure you have a reason to love doing it.

Negative motivation (pain-avoidance)
It is the type of motivation that you use when you perform an activity to avoid the pain that may result from not doing it. For instance, a student who studies hard not to fail is negatively motivating himself. While positive motivation is expecting a reward, negative motivation is avoiding pain or punishment. One important factor to consider while negatively motivating yourself is your capacity to tolerate pain. 
If you have a high pain-tolerance, meaning that you can bear a lot of pain before you actually budge into action then negative motivation won’t be a great tool for you. Until your pain reaches a certain threshold you won’t be motivated to act. In this case, therefore, high pain-tolerance can be a disadvantage.

Compare this to a person who has low pain tolerance- who can’t bear too much pain and whose threshold is low. For him, negative motivation would be a perfect tool.

Another important thing to consider in negative motivation is that if you don’t have a solution at hand, then negatively motivating yourself can cause helplessness and depression. Negative motivation means running away from pain and in order to do that you must know which way to run. There must be a way first. If there isn’t, then negative motivation will only paralyze you.

If negative motivation itself forces you to find a way out- well and good! But hey “finding a way out” is also a way in itself and that’s better than being paralyzed.

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