Have you ever started your day saying “I feel good today, I’m so motivated!” Have you ever asked yourself whether you were feeling good because you were motivated or was it the other way around: you were motivated because you were feeling good?

What about when you’re feeling down? Have you ever noticed that when your motivation is low then your emotional state tends to be down too? Or maybe you felt that your negative emotions were bringing your motivation down…

So how does it really work? What’s the relationship between emotions and motivation? How do they influence each other?

Let’s start simple. What is motivation?

There are so many different theories explaining motivation. But they all have in common one thing: they all define motivation as a force that drives our actions towards a specific direction.

In other words, motivation influences our behavior. It works as a cycle: our thoughts influence our behavior, which influences our performance. The result of this performance influences our thoughts.

In case you haven’t noticed, our emotions have a great impact on our thoughts, our behavior, and our performance. That’s why we immediately start to have negative thoughts coming to our minds when we don’t feel good, we behave differently, and our performance drops. Think about the last time you were feeling sad. Have you also noticed that you were thinking negatively (my life is a mess, I’m not good enough, I’ll never be happy…)? Have you suddenly changed the way you usually behave or act (stop going to the gym, stop calling your friends…)? Was your performance at work or in any other activities stable or did you note it was lower than usual?

Clearly, our emotions have a great impact on all aspects of our life, which can sometimes prevent us from reaching our goals.

Human needs, emotions, and motivation:

According to self-determination theory, there are three main needs that motivate human beings: competence (the need to feel competent and effective), relatedness (the need to feel accepted by others), and autonomy (the need to initiate one’s behavior). The satisfaction of those needs lead to positive emotions as well as an improvement of wellbeing and personal growth, which, in return, maintains motivation, productivity, and happiness.

This explains why our happiness and emotional wellbeing depends somehow on the extent to which we are motivated.

So far, it seems clear that emotions and motivations are linked to each other. The question is do negative emotions lead to low motivation? Do positive emotions lead to high motivation?

What’s the relationship between emotions and motivation?

Apparently, it depends on the emotion itself. There is a very interesting study by Vandercammen, Hofmans, and Theuns that highlights the role of emotion in motivation.

Emotions have a feature that determines our actions:

According to the componential approach to emotions, one of the key components of emotions is action readiness, which refers to the readiness to engage with the environment. Each emotion has a different action readiness profile. This could explain why emotions and motivation are linked and why different emotions could have a different effect on motivation.

For instance, joy motivates you to play and participate in creative activities whereas anger motivates you to attack. Some emotions are associated with a low action readiness, such as sadness. This explains why when you are sad, you usually don’t want to do anything. Other emotions, such as happiness, are associated with a high action readiness, explaining why you tend to be more productive and motivated when you feel happy.

For instance, anxiety, which is a negative emotion, is associated with a high action readiness as well as happiness, which is a positive emotion. However, they each have a different impact on motivation. In other words, when you feel happy, you feel more motivated to do the things you want to do. But when you feel anxious, you feel less motivated to do the things you want to do.

The ability to differentiate emotions has an impact on motivation:

Let’s take the example of relaxation. Relaxation is a positive emotion with a low action readiness, which means this emotion makes you less likely to engage with the environment. Depending on how well you differentiate your emotions, feeling relaxed, may either increase your motivation or not affect it at all.

If you are a poor differentiator, this means that whenever you feel a positive emotion, you experience this emotion as a mixture of positive emotions instead of feeling well-separated emotions. You also react more strongly to your emotions. The same holds true for negative emotions. For example, when something bad happens, poor differentiators tend to feel a general negative emotional state. They are not able to specifically pinpoint whether the emotion they feel is anxiety, sadness, frustration, fear etc…They just know they are not feeling good, so they will experience the situation as negative without distinguishing among their different negative emotions.

Since poor differentiators react more strongly to their emotions, they are more likely to let their emotions influence their actions. This explains why poor differentiators need to feel positive emotions to feel motivated, and when they feel negative emotions, they will feel less motivated.

As a poor differentiator, feeling calm or relaxed, is more likely to increase your motivation because you will experience the situation as a general positive emotional state, which in return, will increase your motivation.

On the contrary, if you are a good differentiator, you will be able to distinguish the exact emotion you feel, whether it’s a positive or negative one. You are more aware of your emotions and can also manage your them better, which means you can decrease the influence that emotions have on your behavior.

For good differentiators, emotions such as enthusiasm, cheerfulness, optimism, and contentedness will influence positively their motivation. However, feeling relaxed or calm, which are both positive emotions, will not necessarily increase their level of motivation.

In reverse, when good differentiators feel negative emotions, it doesn’t necessarily affect their motivation because they are better at regulating them and prevent them from influencing their behavior.

Individual differences in the way we differentiate emotions can explain why we are not all equal when it comes to the extent to which our motivation depends on our emotions.

Poor differentiators’ motivation depends much more strongly on their emotions compared to good differentiators.

It is true that in general our emotions influence our motivation. However, since each emotion has a different action readiness profile, the relationship between emotion and motivation varies from one emotion to another.

For negative emotions, being a good differentiator is beneficial since these negative emotions will not affect your motivation negatively.

But for positive emotions, being a poor differentiator is more beneficial because whatever the positive emotion you feel in that case, it will positively influence your motivation while for good differentiators, not all positive emotions lead to increased motivation.

But why is it so important to know how this relationship works?

Simply because understanding the relationship between emotions and motivation can help us improve our emotional wellbeing. If you understand how emotions and motivation influence each other then you can learn how to regulate your behavior and emotions in consequence to stay motivated and maintain a positive emotional state.

As a conclusion, the ability to differentiate your negative emotions can help you to prevent them from bringing your motivation down.

The good news is, even if you are a poor differentiator, you can learn to distinguish and manage your emotions better through specific tools, resources, and professionals who can help you improve your emotional skills.