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Is Our Digitized Mind—Mindless?

What does it look like for motivation and mindfulness to be in harmony?

Key points

  • Motivation includes the push and pull of material, psychological, and well-being rewards.
  • The demands of what motivates us may create personal and social pressures, and ultimately, burnout.
  • Our digital culture automates choices, subtly eclipsing mindful decision-making.
  • Self-efficacy can facilitate a learned equilibrium of mindful pause within our motivated human agency.

The 21st century is replete with innovations, self-help tools, and ever-expanding technologies. Yet, on a personal level, psychological growth must begin with motivation—deliberate intention and learned mindfulness—the thoughtful suspension of choice.

Since mindfulness is being in the present moment, thoughts of past choices and the future, still full of choices, temporarily fade. So, are motivation and mindfulness compatible? Or at odds with one another? Conscious awareness, "being suspended in the moment " at first, is cognitive dissonance. The challenge is learning to be aware and make choices in everyday living but also practicing a reframing of "suspension"—when transitioning to pause during periodic mindfulness practice.

Motivation and a "mindful mindset" transcend differences among people because they share the common ground of human agency: the active ability to reflect and self-organize—mindfully. This essay examines how these capacities augment one another, contributing to a growth mindset.

"Tidal Pause," original oil by Frank John Ninivaggi, 2015

The Many Faces of Motivation

Motivation derives etymologically from the mid-20th century German term "motivieren," meaning "to stimulate toward action, act as the inciting cause of." This conscious intention concerns the direction and magnitude of behavior as it pivots on the choice of a selected action, its persistence, sustainability, and spent effort through time. Motivation develops gradually and fluctuates with age and changing contexts.

Motivation as an aroused intention has four facets:

  1. Choice
  2. Action
  3. Effort
  4. Persistence

The intended reason or purpose for goal-directed action, motivation is an amalgam of non-linear, complex, and dynamic systems. In such interfaced processes, only the most potent cause, drive, need, value, goal, or interest rises to become a motivated choice. One's selection of what to be motivated about is the product of mutually reinforcing cognition and emotion.

Goal orientations are a mix of motivational intentions, plans, tasks, and their implementation. Current neuroscience delineates choice selection and decision-making based on values from circuitry in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), where risk assessment and choice of values occur. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) selects the best rewards and decides an ultimate choice. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) executes an action. Information circuitry integrates non-conscious and conscious processes pervaded by emotion to yield motivational selections. Norepinephrine, dopamine, and the brain's ventral tegmentum are central to reward-seeking and reinforcement (Ninivaggi 2017).

The "Self-Efficacy Theory" of Albert Bandura (1986) emerged from a theoretical composite of non-linear, dynamic, relational systems. With this motivational scaffolding, Bandura developed the concept of "human agency," that is, people actively working to produce a purposeful outcome by establishing meaning from their environment through conscious intention, self-reflection, and creativity. A perceived belief in the ability to accomplish a task successfully builds confidence, further strengthening self-efficacious convictions.

The earlier social learning theories of Lev Vygotsky (1978), the originator of "social constructivism," paved the way for constructing new learning and schemas through experience and social discourse. Higher-order cognitive processes become internalized from social interactions with more competent others. This "person-plus" joint activity sees motivation transcending an individual to become socially distributed in cultural systems.

The continued expansion of motivational ideas led to the "Self-Determination Theory" of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci in the 1980s. Motivation has intrinsic sources: interest, curiosity, and joy toward creative outcomes. Extrinsic motivation offers controlled incentives. For example, while an intrinsic reward is the most potent motivator, extrinsic rewards rest on a continuum, with different degrees of external control, making them less appealing the more they deprive an individual of self-determination.

Allan Wigfield and Jacquelynne Eccles (2000) introduced the "Situated Expectancy-Value Theory" to explain motivation as the anticipation of valuable rewards, achievement, and competence. This formulation highlighted how one's anticipation of a valuable reward under specific conditions, e.g., a job or a relationship, is the core of motivational structures.

Thus, the psychology of motivation pivots on deliberately selecting salient and worthwhile incentives. Emotion, need, and drive weighed heavily in the history of motivation but were superseded by conscious intention and strategic future planning. Thus, motivation is an active, deliberate arousal of anticipation and reward.


Mindfulness is being in the "now"—living fully in the present. Mindfulness impels an inexplicable transformation to a new future, not merely a change from an incomplete past. Mindfulness becomes a lifestyle promoting a growth mindset galvanized by meaning—the clustering of potent values energizing the tone of character and behavior. Learning to live with complexity as the fabric of wholeness defines "mindful mindedness" (Ninivaggi 2020).

Expressions of mindfulness often take the form of mindfulness meditation aimed at stress reduction. This suspension of active thinking clears and reboots the mind, allowing time to pause and relax, thus de-stressing and restoring balance. The suspension of arousal, expectancy, and reward characterize episodes of mindfulness practice. Ancillary benefits include embracing nutrition, exercise, therapeutic breathing, fitness, and relationship renewal, all of which attract one toward wellness.

Mindfulness offers a timely, innovative, and focused approach to the challenge of burnout. Once a problem for physicians, burnout now pervades all occupations. Burnout entails physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of inadequate accomplishment. Feeling that one's life is sputtering, on the verge of stalling, precedes full-blown burnout. Generativity in productive work diminishes, and integrity fades into despair. This decline in "human agency" is why recuperative mindfulness has gained popularity.

Multiple causes contribute to burnout. For example, technology, with its never-ending wonders, has led to its becoming used as our "personal assistant." This "assistant" becomes an auxiliary mind, often substituting for the humane use (that is, respectful, caring, and empathetic) of our biopsychosocial functioning, launching an unprecedented merger between people and machines. We are "digitized." Algorithms have become artificial brains, automating choices and subtly eclipsing mindful decision-making.

While technology has provided innumerable benefits, its complexity has reached avalanching proportions, choking rather than facilitating thought-provoking neurocircuitry. Are we ready to reassess the role technology plays in our lives? Have we become the avatars in techno-games that play us? These endure as intriguing questions.

Motivation and Mindfulness in Harmony

As human agents, we have the capacity and ability for active choices that can hold complex mixtures of seemingly antithetical options—aroused motivation synchronized with pausing to restore our well-being. Today's post-modern barrage of real and virtual data has led to the "biomental" overload known as burnout. As self-efficacious agents, we can thoughtfully choose to integrate an intentional striving for learned mindfulness in our lives: merging productive, measured activity punctuated with suspended arousal—a pause.

Learned mindfulness—the thoughtful suspension of choice—is a formidable challenge that can be suitably integrated into a lifestyle contoured with the criterion of well-being that further advances a growth mindset.


Ninivaggi, F. J. (2020). Learned Mindfulness: Physician Engagement and MD Wellness. New York, NY: Elsevier/Academic Press.

Ninivaggi, Frank John (2017). Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p 210.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Donald, J.N., Bradshaw, E.L., Ryan, R.M., Basarkod, G., Ciarrochi, J., Duineveld, J.J., Guo, J., & Sahdra, B.K. (2019). Mindfulness and Its Association With Varied Types of Motivation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Using Self-Determination Theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46, 1121 - 1138.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy—Value Theory of Achievement Motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68-81.

Elliot & Dweck, in 2007 Elliot, A. (2007). A conceptual history of the achievement goal construct. In A. Elliot & C. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp.52-72). New York: Guilford Press.

Harper, D. (n.d.). Etymology of motivation. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved January 25, 2023, from

Ryan and Deci (1980). Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1980). Self-determination theory: When mind mediates behavior. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 1(1), 33–43

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ninivaggi, F.J. (2013). Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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