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Why Passion Is Pessimism’s Best Antidote

Cultivating passion and desire counteracts pessimism better than sappy optimism.

Key points

  • Motivation relies on avoiding unrecoverable fatigue and pessimistic decision-making, which can subvert passion and desire in the brain.
  • New research suggests that subdivisions of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and striatum may act like an "on/off" motivation switch.
  • Pessimism diminishes a feel-good reward's value and turns off motivation's "volition switch." Passion and desire may "turn it on again."
zamzawawi isa/Shutterstock
Source: zamzawawi isa/Shutterstock

"What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire. The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life." —Stanley Kunitz, "Touch Me."

"In a world made of steel, made of stone. Take your passion and make it happen." —Irene Cara, "Flashdance (What a Feeling)."

"Can't you see my desire burning inside me? Nothing can stop me from trying." —Madonna, "Open Your Heart."

As an ultra-endurance athlete, one of the best ways to sustain my motivation and silence the little voice in my head that whispers, "Who cares about this stupid race?" or mutters, "Putting yourself through so much suffering just to win a chintzy trophy is absurd," is to substitute that pessimistic inner dialogue with song lyrics or poetry verses that fortify my passion and desire from people like Madonna, Irene Cara, or Stanley Kunitz.

Anecdotally, I've learned over the years that the best way to reframe a pessimistic attitude isn't to focus simply on seeing the glass half full or trying to be more optimistic but rather to focus on why pursuing goal-directed behavior with gusto makes me feel good.

For me, being a Pollyanna or pretending everything's hunky-dory when it's not doesn't seem to genuinely boost optimism and diminish pessimism; but focusing on being more passionate does.

Why Is Passion a Better Remedy for Pessimism Than Pollyannaism?

New research (Amemori et al., 2021) offers some fresh clues as to why purposefully amplifying one's passion and desire may be the best antidote for pessimism.

For this approach-avoidance (Ap-Av) study about "pessimistic decision-making," neuroscientists at Kyoto University created a lab experiment where monkeys had to decide if enduring annoying turbo-charged blasts of air directly in their face was worth the value of receiving different-sized food rewards.

The researchers pinpointed a cortical brain region located in the frontal cortex called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), which seems to act like an "on/off" switch that increases or decreases the motivation to seek a reward that involves some discomfort. Additionally, striosomes connected to subcortical regions of the striatum seem to reduce desire by undercutting a reward's value when the monkey was in a negative mental state. I reported on these findings in a recent post, "How Pessimism Can Hijack the Brain and Subvert Motivation."

 Geoff B. Hall/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating location of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
Source: Geoff B. Hall/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Pessimism Can Deactivate Brain Regions Associated with Passion and Desire

One takeaway from this research is that, on a neurobiological level, pessimism activates brain areas associated with anxiety and depression.

Previous studies have shown that generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) tends to make people more likely to avoid passionately pursuing goals that might involve some discomfort or hardship. Major depressive disorders (MDD) can diminish one's desire to make an effort to obtain a reward because the "prize" itself seems worthless.

"Love what you do, pour your heart into it, and you will be rewarded." —Aaron Morse (founder of my athletic sponsor, Kiehls Since 1851)

In the following section of this autobiographical post, I'll filter the latest (2021) neuroscience-based research on pessimism and subverted motivation through my life experience. Hopefully, you'll find some value in the road-tested examples of how I counteracted "pessimistic decision-making" by focusing on increasing my passion/desire and visualizing an on/off "volition switch" in my prefrontal cortex, which the latest research suggests may be located in the ACC.

Reactivating Motivation with Passionate Desire

 Christopher Bergland
Keeping his brain's volition switch in the "up and locked" position helped Chris Bergland break a Guinness World Record in 2004.
Source: Christopher Bergland

In the early '80s, during middle adolescence (ages 14 to 17), I was plagued by the triple whammy of pessimism, depression, and anxiousness. I felt hopeless, hollow, and dead inside. At the time, I was trapped at a draconian New England boarding school where my authoritarian (and homophobic) dean tried to squash my exuberance and joie de vivre. As a 16-year-old gay teen, I refused to pretend I was straight by "butching it up" but felt crippling insecurity nonetheless.

Thankfully, I broke free of this dysphoria in the summer of 1983, when I was almost 18. The turning point for me was going to see a matinee of Flashdance on a sunny day in June. It may seem hokey and cliché, but the soundtrack's theme song and the movie's cinematography sparked something inside me that felt like catching lightning in a bottle and seemed to turn on what I would later call my "volition switch."

For me, "taking my passion and making it happen" meant discovering that aerobic exercise stimulated the release of feel-good neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, endocannabinoids, norepinephrine) that made me less pessimistic and more passionate.

In The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (2007), I describe how I thought the "volition switch" worked in the aughts:

"A few milliseconds before a person decides to carry out a willful action, specific neurons in the cerebral cortex discharge an electrical readiness signal that cues the appropriate motor neurons to fire. This small area just behind your eyes in your prefrontal cortex is the seat of free will and decision-making. I call it the "volition switch" and imagine a traditional on/off lightbulb switch. Practice keeping it locked in the "on" position. Once the volition switch is turned off, the synapses along that neural network will stop firing. This results in quitting or giving up. Anytime you decide to go, remember you have flicked the volition switch on; anytime you decide to quit, you've turned it off."

Since writing that description of how I suspected the so-called "volition switch" might work almost two decades ago, I've kept my antennae up for neuroscience-based research that better explains the phenomenon of feeling a switch in my brain turn "on" or "off" during goal-directed behavior.

As I've written about in recent evidence-based posts (here, here, here), the key to sustaining my motivation for enthusiastically pursuing goal-directed behavior involves using my imagination to view accomplishing a goal as something that releases eudaimonia-inducing molecules such as dopamine. Like a squirrel trying to get a nut, my passion and desire to achieve a goal are primarily driven by the intrinsic reward of getting a "hit" of dopamine.

In the past, I used to visualize the so-called "volition switch" as a random cluster of neurons somewhere in the prefrontal cortex; the latest laser-focused research suggests that this "on/off" motivation switch may be located in the pACC or posterior Rostral Cingulate Zone (RCZp) subregions of the frontal cortex.


Tanja Müller, Miriam C. Klein-Flügge, Sanjay G. Manohar, Masud Husain & Matthew A. J. Apps. "Neural and Computational Mechanisms of Momentary Fatigue and Persistence in Effort-Based Choice." Nature Communications (First published: July 28, 2021) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24927-7

Conrad Foo, Adrian Lozada, Johnatan Aljadeff, Yulong Li, Jing W. Wang, Paul A. Slesinger, David Kleinfeld. "Reinforcement Learning Links Spontaneous Cortical Dopamine Impulses to Reward." Current Biology (First published: July 23, 2021) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.06.069

Satoko Amemori, Ann M. Graybiel, Ken-ichi Amemori. "Causal Evidence for Induction of Pessimistic Decision-Making in Primates by the Network of Frontal Cortex and Striosomes." Frontiers in Neuroscience (First published: June 30, 2021) DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2021.649167

Giuseppe Castegnetti, Mariana Zurita, and Benedetto De Martino. "How Usefulness Shapes Neural Representations During Goal-Directed Behavior." Science Advances (First published: April 07, 2021) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd5363