Is Fear, Anger or Positive Thinking the Best Motivator?

It all depends on your situation.

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There are three main motivators in life: Fear (“I should work late so my boss knows he shouldn’t fire me!”); anger (“I’ll show her! I’m going to hit the gym and get swole!”); and positive thinking (“I can achieve my goals if I work hard enough!”). But as you know from those New Year’s resolutions you abandoned ten months ago, motivation can be fickle and fleeting. So which one should you bet on?

Fear
Fear-based motivation can be great for accomplishing small tasks, but it’s not a great life strategy. Buying flowers might ease the fear of your girlfriend losing interest in you today, for example, but living in constant fear of losing her? Not so much. “Task completion reduces fear, thus promoting task completion in the future,” says psychologist Gabby Farkas. “Rather than actively seeking goals, individuals motivated by fear are performance-avoidant.” A rough translation of what Farkas is saying here: Fear doesn’t motivate you to improve, or even be a good boyfriend — it just motivates you to do whatever immediate and obvious task it takes to not be single again.

Rachel S. Heslin, author of Navigating Life: 8 Different Strategies to Guide Your Way, agrees. “When you’re motivated from a place of fear, there’s always a part of you which is anxiously looking for the next danger. Regardless of how much you do, it will never be enough,” she says.

Fear, in other words, is great at motivating you to put short-term bandages on your life, but will never lead to permanent lifestyle changes.

Anger
With anger as your motivator, you’ll set concrete goals, says Farkas: lose weight after a breakup; quit your job; finally ditch old friends with bad habits. But this will only happen if you learn how to quickly and accurately identify why you’re angry in the first place, and then set the appropriate goals to fix it. For any problems without a clear and immediate source of anger, it’s a shaky foundation.

“Anger can be harder to regulate than other negative emotions,” says Farkas, explaining that it’s easy to get confused about what you’re actually angry at and focus on the wrong things. Sure, you can hit the gym after a breakup, but what happens when working out doesn’t make things better? Once you miss the opportunity to deal with the source of your rage, you’ll just stay angry, which can lead to violent outbursts at trivial things, rather than usefully burning the anger off.

Positivity
Both Heslin and Farkas agree that, when applied correctly, positivity is the best long-term motivator for making useful changes in your life. “[When] centered on optimism and active, goal-oriented behavior, those who are positively motivated tend to be resourceful and resilient, adapting to the best strategies for success,” Farkas explains.

The key to making this work for you is having achievable goals, since positivity can be the most fleeting and fickle of the three if you don’t manage your expectations in a realistic way. “When your goal seems very far away, it’s easy to get discouraged,” Heslin argues. You might set out to lose weight, say, but after three weeks of motivational speeches in the mirror and only two pounds lost, it’s easy to give up. “You need to make sure that you develop structures and habits that help you get back in touch with your goals, and celebrate how much you’ve already achieved in order to maintain your motivation,” Heslin adds.

So Which Is Best?
It’s kind of a trick question in that any of the three can be a good source of motivation. Mostly then, it all comes down to the situation: What needs to change, and how you intend to get there? If your boss is a perennial jerk, you can’t just keep saying, “If I continue to work hard, it’ll pay off!” You’ll go crazy. Instead, you have to get angry, put your foot down and make a change.

“Consider the types of motivation as they come to you,” Farkas concludes. “Reap the benefits, and if you find disadvantages getting in your way, attempt to refocus your motivation in a way that will once again benefit you and your goals.”

That means that if anger gets you into the gym, great, but know that it may very well be positivity that keeps you coming back.