The Brain Science of Success

February 17, 2015 by John Andrew Williams

You know that kick that you get when you accomplish something? Or how about when something unexpectedly good happens?

Seems like the energy to keep motivated lasts like the slow burn of a good fire with a hot coal bed.

And who doesn’t like a cosy, warm, good, slow burning fire on a chill winter’s night?

In the search for learning how to motivate teenagers, the brain hormone dopamine provides an insight into an important function. Let’s take a deeper look into this motivating hormone.

Dopamine is often associated with reward or success. When our bodies receive a desired reward—food, for example, and the satisfaction and comfort that becomes associated with it (think of the smell of your mama’s cooking)—dopamine is released. More dopamine in the system often results in increased motivation and action toward pursuing the reward again.

On the other hand, dopamine is also released when we receive “negative motivators.” Imagine you’re checking the mail and you learn about some unexpected bad news. Dopamine levels surge.

In that same batch of mail, you find an unexpected sum of money, and BOOM dopamine is double released and you feel like taking on the world. You went to the mailbox expecting a simple daily chore, and were rewarded unexpectedly.

Professor of Neuroscience, Wolfram Shultz has come up with a theory called reward prediction error. In a nutshell, you’ll get a kick of dopamine when you receive something better or worse than expected.

It’s this boost that video game programmers use to keep people hooked. The stream of slightly better or worse results from the same actions act like a drug in the brain. Science Daily reports that dopamine, “regulates motivation, causing individuals to initiate and persevere to obtain something either positive or negative.”

In academics, students get a dopamine boosts when a paper comes back with an unexpected good grade.

You get a boost when you look at your paycheck and see an unexpected bonus.

Dopamine release keeps us motivated and striving in a world filled with surprises.

It turns out that dopamine releases generally during the process of seeking rewards and not necessarily enjoying rewards. The good news is that dopamine is created continually as people tap into intrinsic motivation and flow.

This state of flow is created by achieving something just out of reach, being pleasantly surprised that the work you are doing is creating positive results OR being slightly disappointed but even more motivated to keep going. This push and pull is how dopamine keeps us striving for success.

From a life coaching perspective, it’s useful to know and understand the role of dopamine in helping clients design actions. We can hack into motivation and make it work for us. Kevan Lee writes on his blog, “the brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences.”

Some powerful questions that set the stage for dopamine release:

  • What are you predicting is going to happen?
  • What would surprise you?
  • What’s your plan of action is things don’t turn out as well as you hope?
  • What’s going to motivate you to take that risk?
  • When you were doing your best work last week, what was unexpectedly good?
  • What are some incremental goals we can make? (Goal setting helps with dopamine release in that the reward of achieving goals is continual and progressive, resulting in more dopamine sparks.)

You’re asking questions built around motivation and reward. You’re helping harness the power of both positive and negative results.

Tracking these highs and lows can help a person motivate and access success and to really know how good it feels to strive. And knowing is half the battle.

Also read: Model Motivation: How Parents Can Help

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