- Some people believe that mindfulness, by encouraging acceptance, reduces the motivation to pursue goals and better one’s situation.
- A recent study finds that mindfulness meditation does not impair motivation but can potentially enhance it.
- Mindfulness meditation might strengthen motivation by promoting mental clarity and increasing expectations of success.
There are many problems with mindfulness training. Or so we have been told. For instance, that mindfulness training is narcissistic, the benefits of mindfulness exercises have been hyped and exaggerated, mindfulness carries a risk of harmful side effects, etc.
One major criticism of mindfulness is that mindfulness training reduces motivation. Perhaps those who hold this view suppose the acceptance of the present moment, which mindfulness training encourages, results in passivity, apathy, or resignation.
But does mindfulness meditation practice actually reduce motivation?
The present article reports the findings of a study by Smyth and Milyavskaya, which concludes mindfulness does not reduce motivation. If anything, people often feel more motivated even after a brief session of mindfulness practice. The research, published in the latest issue of European Journal of Social Psychology, is reviewed below.
Motivation and mindfulness meditation practice
Two studies were conducted.
The first investigation had a sample of 200—average age of 21 years old; 26% males; 55% Caucasian.
Participants were asked to set three personal goals for the following week and note their motivation for these goals.
Subsequently, they were assigned to either a filler questionnaire condition, a podcast condition (on the history of emojis), or a mindfulness meditation condition. Those in the mindfulness meditation group listened to a 10-minute guided meditation. This focused-breathing meditation exercise instructed participants to bring their attention to the physical sensations of breathing in and breathing out.
Next, all participants were asked about their motivation toward their previously set goals for a second time. And a third time, after completing more filler tasks.
To replicate the findings, a second investigation was conducted—a sample of 120; average age of 20 years old; 35% males; 56% Caucasian. A similar procedure was used.
Participants reported greater goal motivation in the mindfulness than in the podcast condition, a difference that was still present at the follow-up. Furthermore, though “goal motivation stayed the same from before until immediately after meditating in Study 1,” “there was a trend towards an increase from before to 10 minutes after meditating.” And in Study 2, “goal motivation increased from before until immediately after meditating.”
Therefore, the findings do not support the view that meditation decreases motivation. In fact, meditation appears to provide motivational benefits for the pursuit of personal goals. This agrees with previous research on the power of mindfulness practices in enhancing motivation (e.g., to lose weight).
The mechanisms underlying improved motivation
In summary, the investigation found mindfulness does not reduce motivation. Instead, mindfulness increases motivation or trends in that direction. Naturally, more research is needed before we draw definite conclusions regarding whether mindfulness increases motivation in all situations.
Let us now discuss mechanisms: How might mindfulness increase motivation?
According to self-determination theory, mindfulness meditation practice heightens mental clarity and self-awareness (e.g., of one’s interests, values, needs, desires). It frees people from mindless, compulsive, and automatic behaviors. Mindfulness promotes and facilitates the pursuit of intrinsically valued goals (i.e. naturally interesting, challenging, or satisfying goals), as opposed to extrinsically motivated goals (e.g., money, prizes).
And, according to a recent model, mindfulness training promotes effortless self-regulation. For instance, with greater mindfulness comes greater clarity regarding...
- One’s goals and values.
- True rewards of a particular automatic behavior (e.g., playing video games) compared to the rewards of more freely chosen behaviors (e.g., learning to play the guitar, going hiking with friends)
- Appropriateness of a behavior for achieving valued goals (e.g., goals of happiness, health, competence)
- Effectiveness of currently used motivation techniques.
Such awareness allows the individual to experience a sense of choice and freedom in choosing how to behave, reducing the need for pure willpower to resist temptations.
Mindfulness meditation practices might also increase motivation in other ways, such as by influencing perceptions of the likelihood of success. How?
By reducing a person’s stress and anxiety and by enhancing their focus. For example, a socially anxious person who practices mindfulness may feel less nervous and worried before going to a dinner party and feel calmer and more focused while there. This increases the individual’s sense of efficacy and expectations of success in social situations, which then improves their motivation for going to other social events.
Concluding thoughts on self-motivation and mindfulness
We all want to feel motivated—or to feel more motivated—to do certain tasks or chores, like study, work, clean the house, exercise, or lose weight; or to change our unhappy circumstances (e.g., poverty, unemployment, an abusive relationship). But the question is, How?
Some people believe that in order to feel more motivated to change your situation, you must reject everything about it and bring out your fighting spirit. And if you instead work on accepting the present and finding inner peace, you lose the motivation to improve your situation.
This view is mistaken. We must understand that embracing the present is not equal to apathy or resignation. It simply means accepting the reality of the current situation and letting emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, fear) arise and pass without attaching to them or fighting them. Wasting energy trying to control, resist, reject, or escape unpleasant thoughts and feelings related to one’s unhappy circumstances gives them more power. And does not change reality.
The regular practice of mindfulness is one way of embracing the present. The reviewed research suggests mindfulness practices, even when brief, may increase motivation, perhaps by enhancing clarity and heightening expectations of success.
No, mindfulness is not a panacea. However, when used the right way and along with cognitive behavioral techniques and other tools (see 19 motivational strategies), mindfulness is a useful technique for enhancing your motivation, particularly to achieve personally meaningful and authentic goals.
A final note: A lack of motivation is sometimes a symptom of mental health issues (e.g., depression, schizophrenia) or associated with medication/drug use (e.g., the side effects of some antidepressants, cannabis use disorder), so see a therapist if you constantly struggle with low motivation.