Alina Grubnyak

Where to Search for Meaning?

The motivation of coherence

Have you ever wondered why do you feel unmotivated to study for an exam, even if you know it is a very important one? This frustrating thought has found its way to the minds of thousands of students in millions of study sessions. We all have wished at some point that we wanted to do what we needed to do: it would have made things easier.

There are contradictions in human behavior that, when formulated, possess certain beauty. The gap between goals and actions is one of them. Although challenging to reunite, they bring us closer to understanding the discrepancies in our goal systems, and the way towards building meaning to our actions and life. This is because, in fact, motivation and meaning are one and the same.

Motivation is a tricky word to understand. It has been used with negligence in academic literature; many write about motivation having a private definition in mind and not always making this definition explicit. The collective definition that hatches all the uses of the word conceptualize it as a tension that energizes our actions and determines their direction and strength. It is like kicking a ball. The kick does not only make it move, but also dictates if it is going to go North or South, at what speed, and for how long.

And then we have meaning, another fuzzy word. They are the only two I have looked into- maybe all words are fuzzy once you observe them close enough. Researchers that devoted their lives to study meaning say that meaning has three essential dimensions: activity, evaluation, and potency. This seems strikingly similar to the dimensions of motivation. There seems to be minimal difference between activity and energization, evaluation and direction, and potency and strength.

If this is true, then motivation is the meaning of behavior. This provides important insights into the nature of human action. It confirms that behavior is purposeful.

Our common sense agrees with this. People focus a lot on purposes. Now and then we crash with questions of the type ‘What is the purpose of my life?’  Normally, we give some intrinsic value to the question. We expect that having a clear big purpose will be motivating. It is true that having a purpose is important, and undoubtedly motivating. But maybe the purpose itself is worth little- maybe any will do.

In the end, people have strived for a wide variety of goals- as many as there are cultural frameworks, moments in history, and personal lives and careers. Many of them contradict each other. And to what extent some are worth more than others is something that we cannot really defend. What criteria would we use to make a decision? Well, maybe there are some universal starting points. Maybe it is aligned with our social nature, to be honest, or to do not cause harm if we can avoid it. We also would like to satisfy our basic human needs. We all want to eat and sleep. Reproduce. We all benefit from having meaningful connections, autonomy, some degree of power. After that, however, things get very blurry. The purpose is up to you.

Or you think it is up to you- that doesn’t matter that much either. We absorb and learn part of the meaning from our social and cultural groups. This is convenient: it increases coherence in our social systems. Think about how complex we are, and how complex the world is. There are infinite behaviors that each human could do at every point in time- and we are billions. Chaos in the world is, considering this, extremely low. Why? Well, we adapt and influence, we are aligned with each other to some extent. We find meaning in this coherence.

Our values, identities and long-term goals are thus not random, and most are not deliberate. We, however, still have a say in what we want to build. Our say is not on big purposes but in our daily behavior. It is the accumulation of daily actions that will shape- and is shaping- in which big purpose we will find meaning tomorrow.

The key at the personal level is thus also coherence. An alignment between who you are, your goals, and your actions. Maybe it is worth it to try to find meaning in coherence instead of in the big goal itself.

Normally, psychologists conceptualize goals in the form of a hierarchy. On top of the hierarchy, there are values and a sense of identity, followed by long-term goals. On the bottom, there are the small everyday life actions. The pyramid is often visited by cognitive processes and emotions, that are like construction workers keeping things up together, thinking about solutions, re-evaluating the plan when there’s bad weather. If there is alignment in the values, long-term goals, short-term goals and everyday actions there are good emotions. A sense of well-being. A coherent system that builds a personal meaning and pumps motivation up.

So choose any purpose- it does not matter which one. But once you choose it, build a coherent system around it.

Do so the day you sit in the library asking yourself why are you so unmotivated to study for such an important exam. Reflect on the meaning of your behavior. What is energizing your behavior? Where are you going with this? How strongly? Start from the small goals- then go up. Why are you in the library? Why are you studying Economics and Business? And why do you value such and such? It might be that you find some gaps. It might improve motivation a little to think, choose, and rewire. And then, of course, to compromise with whatever you think is your path.