“When you don’t know what you really want…”

by Edmund Griffin, MD, PHD

My 3-year-old son insisted that he was not sleepy. It was 30 minutes past bedtime, and he was now doing an elaborate dance routine, apparently as proof of alertness. Entertained but unconvinced, I made an executive decision to keep to routine. “Hey guy, it looks like you’ve still got a lot of energy!” I said to him, “But you know our rule: ‘When the sun goes down, we go to bed!'”- It was a mantra we had agreed to many bedtimes ago. Five minutes later, like magic, he was fast asleep.

It is conventional wisdom that children do not interpret all their internal signals well. Internal cues like hunger, exhaustion, and desires and dislikes, can get “lost in translation.” Children depend on parentally enforced routine (executive orders) to ensure that they get what they need, which is often, what they “really” want.

But is the misinterpretation of internal cues (feelings) unique to toddlerdom? How many times have you sat on the couch waiting to ‘feel sleepy” before you go to bed? How many times have you waited to “feel social” before calling up a close friend? Or to “feel spiritual” before praying or meditating? Or to “feel energized” before going to the gym?

Sure, you know that you LIKE these things — the mere thought of the scenario brings a satisfied smile to your face. But when it is time to act, we struggle to put one foot in front of the other. Like toddlers, we resist and then launch into elaborate dances that distract us from what is truly rewarding right in front of us. Why do we not feel like doing things that we know we like or find meaningful?

Liking (pleasure, fulfillment) and wanting (motivation) are controlled by different brain regions.

When we don’t feel motivated to pursue things that are meaningful to us, it is not uncommon to become confused about what we really like. The reasoning looks like this: If you liked something enough, you would be more motivated to do it. And if you do not feel motivated, maybe you don’t really like it. Right? While it is generally true that we want (motivation) what we like (enjoy), and that we like what we want the two do not always work in sync. In fact, our brains are wired in such a way that the neuronal networks that generate motivation (wanting) are separate from the networks that generate pleasure and fulfillment (liking).

When we experience pleasure (liking something, a person, activity, or object) a network of “hedonic hot spots” are activated in our brains. These hot spots are mediated by endorphines and endocannabinoid neurotransmitters. These hotspots generate the signals not only for momentary pleasures (food, sex, music, social connection), but may also contribute to the positive emotional feelings critical to the subjective well-being derived from a life well spent.

In contrast, when we anticipate or plan to take action toward a valued goal a different network of neurons, mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine springs into action. The anticipation does not activate pleasure per se, but instead lays the foundation to create the magnetic pull, the desire that causes us to seek the goal. These two networks often work in sync, like a one-two punch: we experience the pleasure of the chocolate cake even before we actually eat the chocolate cake. But much like different phone networks that use similar hardware, these two brain circuits operate with a distinct set of rules, and on occasion they simply go in different directions.

We can want what we don’t like-picture the smoker, who while taking a puff, tells you how much he hates the taste and smell of cigarettes. We can like what we don’t want-the Saturday morning brunch that your friend dragged you to, kicking and screaming, and turned out to be so enjoyable that you proclaimed, “I forgot how much I liked those guys!”

If the feeling of motivation and the feeling of joy and fulfillment do not always go hand in hand, what can we do to bring these two in sync?

Compassion before clarity, clarity before motivation

Long before neurobiologists got on board, spiritual practitioners, psychologists, and parents, have recognized that our desires do not often lead us to the things that we-in our moment of clarity-define as pleasurable or meaningful. Not surprisingly, many people who have found improved life satisfaction through psychotherapy or spiritual practice, cite compassion and empathy as the cornerstone of their improvement. Do compassion and empathy target these regions differentially? Not exactly, but compassion and acceptance are the first of three key principles that are required:

1) Compassionate acceptance: The impulses and desires that comprise our wants, can be temporarily suppressed, but are actually strengthened when we resist them through will power. A compassionate friend, therapist, or spiritual partner offers us the first step to assessing our likes and wants without actively resisting them. This approach is found in spiritually based treatments such as 12 step programs as well as mindfulness-based psychotherapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

2) Clarity: Take a long hard look not at what your emotions tend to pull you toward, but rather, what is truly pleasurable and meaningful to you. What do you like when you are actually in the moment? What do you find meaningful or fulfilling? Well defined values provide the anchors for enhancing your motivation.

3) New motivation formation: We all know how hard it is to “break” a previously formed motivation or habit, but through practice and routine, it is possible to learn new ones.

These three principles were drilled into my mind through years of training. And by my 3 yr. old son. In fact, he reminds me of these principles frequently. When he pushes back on bedtime (or bath time, story time, play time), negotiating, debating (yes it has happened), and steamrolling (“because I said so”), are temporary solves. So on a good night, while both of us experience the frustration, I roll with his resistance, I empathize with his protest, and I redirect him to our routine. And every now and then when I break our routine (two bedtime books instead of the usual three?) he stops and redirects me to our pre-negotiated mantra: “Three year olds get three books!” Because somewhere inside, he knows what he really wants.

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