What makes us do the things we do

Motivation vs manipulation


I have a hunch that in recent years the notion of motivation has been hijacked by motivational speakers, motivational workshops and pretty compilations of favourite motivational quotes.  To illustrate, consider these battling bisons which I photographed in Alaska. The motivational guru would offer a plethora of insights and strategies on how to win, how to be head of the herd and how to become the greatest, most successful and richest bison in bovine history. That is what the word motivation has come to mean. It is inextricably tied into the idea of inspiring others, soaring to greater heights, fulfillment, vision, goal setting, determination, excitement, challenge, visualisation, mastery, achievement, excellence and action. What parades as ‘motivation’  is more akin to ‘manipulation’ and a distorted idea of success. You will notice that it seems to be about one person motivating or inspiring another to do something. So you end up with the scenario of a person attending a seminar in order to move up a notch in their life and the implicit expectation that someone else will provide the impetus and the inspiration. It relies on the assumption that the motivator knows what’s best for you. This definition has taken hold and many associate motivation with the process of being empowered to do something. It is a secondary meaning of the word, however, and not the direction this discussion is heading.

The primary focus of motivation is to understand why we do the things we do, not how to do them, or, even more sinister, how to get other people to do the things we want them to do. Motivation asks why these bisons are banging their heads together. What drives this behaviour? Why are the cows so disinterested? What are the forces or the stimuli that cause bison to act in this way? The secondary definition would encourage us to devise ways of controlling the behaviour for our own purposes. Manipulation implies interference and introducing an external agenda to control action or responses in a particular way. It also spends considerable time convincing people that this is what they want and need. There is a world of difference between the two. To illustrate we can turn the tables and ask, What motivates motivational speakers to conduct motivational seminars and write motivational books? Why do corporations invest so much in contracting motivational speakers to motivate their staff? Is it because they value them so highly that they want  to see them become better people or is there an agenda to make them more productive employees? Is there a profit-productivity bottom line hovering somewhere in the background? And why do people attend such seminars so willingly? Are they bothered by a sense of inadequacy or do they see attendance as a stepping stone in a career path? Yeah, but we don’t ask the boss those sort of questions, do we?

Some years ago I was invited to attend a three-day motivational seminar being conducted by one of the world’s leading motivational speakers. Before the doors even opened the hype was already seeping into the 3,000 attendees who had paid big bucks to attend. I have never witnessed such mass manipulation of so many people so willing to be manipulated. Repeatedly I found myself asking “why can’t people see the the mind games and control? ” It smacked of well-known brain washing  techniques, and I found it quite unsettling. Eventually I could see no reason to endure the pressure and I walked out.

The importance of understanding motivation

controllersThe early Behaviourists observed the relationship between stimulus and response in initiating certain behaviours in animals. Who hasn’t heard of Pavlov and his slobbering dogs? At a very base level, motivation is essentially about push and pull, avoidance and engagement, need and satiation. Call them triggers or switches, we reach a point where their force or impetus is sufficient to make us do something. If I am starving to the point of death I will eat any food I can get my hands on. If I am peckish I will open the fridge door to see what is on offer. Now it becomes more subtle and complicated – cheese, chocolate, fruit or a nutritious can of beer? Not only do we build a hierarchy of our many needs over time, once satisfied we go on to create our own preferences and options associated with those needs. This is all grass roots motivational stuff. The one factor that is at the crux of motivation and behaviour is control. The formula is quite simple. The more I am able to control my environment – my world – the more satisfied and safer I will be. We say that love makes the world go round, but consistently across the natural world it is not love (apologies to all romantics) but control. Survival, safety and comfort are all dependent upon control.


Let’s take this to the next level. Central to survival in my world is this profound need to have a high degree of control over my environment. But look who is sharing that environment with me! You, and you . .  and you . . and you. And all of yous are all eyeing off the same resources that I have my eye on, and yous all want to control your world. Since I am part of your world, you probably want to control me too, which means that we all end up trying to control each other in what has now become a shared environment. While we may be social creatures by birth and we certainly need each other, we all face this dilemma of control. Every last one of us wants some level of control. The result is inevitable – power plays, conflict, manipulation, and dominance as we all engage in the business of discovering how much control we can exercise over each other. Personal control is essential to one’s sense of autonomy and freedom and intrinsic to establishing identity. Losing control is the basis of invalidation and a guaranteed formula for conflict. We can easily find ourselves in the predicament of wanting to be functional and happy but relying on control to establish that desirable estate. Considering that one of the main reasons why people are unhappy is that they are caught up in dysfunctional  and controlling relationships, we can start to see why the subject of motivation becomes so important.

Who wins? The answer to this question is self evident. The most powerful tend to rise to the top of the heap. The theme of power will be developed as this dialogue continues, but suffice to say that this process is the breeding ground of much unhappiness. We live in a highly manipulated and manipulative society. The external barrage of demands on our attention, assets and affections is relentless. And as the world’s population increases the power of the average individual diminishes.  For all the emphasis on the importance and value of the individual, the supremacy of our rights and the uniqueness of our identity, we have become a remarkably homogeneous lot clamouring for a voice and a presence – have you noticed how Facebook pages all look basically the same and are filled with the same circulating content? The puzzling dilemma is that we convince ourselves that we are highly independent and in control of our lives, when the reality for many is the opposite. We can easily be manipulated into thinking that we are in charge while others are actually dictating terms, even determining what we think, how we spend our money and what we eat. It is control by stealth.

Here are two things that need to happen in order to make sense of this dilemma.

Awareness – Develop the skill of being aware of the power plays taking place in every significant interaction. Once you are able to identify the ways power is used (by others as well as yourself) you place yourself in a position of advantage and are better placed to choose how to respond appropriately.

Understanding – Here comes the motivation bit. It not only helps to recognise what people are doing. It helps a great deal more when you have the insight as to why they are doing it. With this understanding comes power.

Develop these two skills, add a good measure of wisdom, maintain integrity in your choices and you will become a truly powerful person. But I hasten to add that we need to learn how to use power. Using power without controlling others will be the focus of a later blog post.

A simple definition of motivation

Much has been said and written about motivation over the years – some of it being very involved and technical – but for the purpose of this discussion I will reduce it to three basic questions.

Motivation is concerned with:

  • What begins or initiates behaviour? Behaviour doesn’t just happen. There is always a trigger that starts the ball rolling.
  • What keeps it going? Usually related to the impetus that initiates behaviour is the rationale for sticking with it.
  • What stops it? We often forget about this important one. Every activity is finite and there comes a time of completion. We need to know when that time arrives, how best to let go and when to intervene.
motivation_01A narrow boat exiting a tunnel on a canal near Birmingham, UK


Happiness – a balancing act

Happiness and Beauty

happiness_gandhiWe are off to India. The arches in this image are located at the entrance to one of the world’s most recognisable buildings, the Taj Mahal. And the words of wisdom are those of  India’s most famous son.

Anyone who has visited this famous tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the emperor Shah Jahan, will be aware of the sense of calm and beauty that surrounds it. Every day thousands of people visit the site and swarm over the grounds, yet it seems to stand serenely apart from the throng. I was captivated by the beauty and symmetry of the structure. Built on the mathematical principle of the Fibonacci‘s golden ratio, it is one of those buildings that looks stunning from any angle and is irresistible to photographers.

Interestingly, when reduced to its individual components it becomes very ordinary and no single piece stands out. Collectively, however,  the parts combine to create a masterpiece of exquisite beauty. Below is a classic shot I took at dawn. While it demonstrates the Taj’s amazing symmetry, it is actually only half an image, the left half having been manipulated to mirror itself into a composite. Roll the mouse over it and you will see the original shot – as well as an interesting optical illusion of movement created by the rising sun.

What makes it beautiful? Why do visitors describe feelings of wonder and peace when they gaze on its splendour? It is obviously more than a wonderful building. Its form and symmetry first took shape in a great mind which still speaks to us four hundred years later. Beauty, for all its elusive complexity (and often simplicity), is something we intuitively recognise and respond to. While we sense its balance and symmetry it doesn’t always play by the rules. Asymmetry and stark contrast also have power to add to beauty. The same can be said of music. The great classics were created following well defined rules of composition. Then along came jazz with the joy of discord and swing, breaking many of the established rules, but still clearly music.

ContentSo, when we think about happiness we meet the same predicament. It is tempting to include ideas of balance, and centredness, control, order and righteousness in a definition of the happy life. But when the rubber meets the road the reality can be different. Many a person who has been dealt a dud hand will attest to being happy with their lot in spite of setbacks and disharmony.

Let’s fine-tune the definition of happiness. Because the word happy covers so many shades of meaning I want to focus on the state of happiness rather the feeling of being happy. Much and all as I revel in the exhilarating and fun end of the happiness spectrum, it usually ends up being transient often with its own built-in let-down. If the exciting fizziness of feeling good is the bubbling and sparkling waters of the fountain of life, then serenity, peace and contentment are the deep, calm waters of the river of life. It is this deeper water that I want to reflect on.

The ‘Rule of Two’ for Happiness:

For all that has ever been said about the subject, it reduces down to the relationship between two things: thought and action.

There is a simple logical progression here. Our thoughts are tempered and shaped by our core beliefs. Those beliefs in turn will direct most of our behaviour – what we say and do. The higher the degree of congruency between our beliefs and behaviour, the more likely we are to be happy.

unhappy When what we do and what we believe fail to align or are pulling in opposite directions, we will be unhappy.
The more consistently we live our lives in harmony with our beliefs, the happier we will be.


  • Happiness is not a reward reserved for privilege or success. While these may bring security they do not guarantee happiness.
  • Contentment is universally achievable regardless of circumstances. In other words anybody can take hold of it.
  • Happiness is found not in doing but in being. It is an illusion to think that we can do things in order to be happy. Rather, the state of harmony and balance between the inner and outer life is what eventually determines whether we are happy or not. It is largely attitudinal.
  • Neither is it the product of perfection. For all the effort we may put in to covering our flaws and imperfections,  we still have adjust, compensate and work our way around the many blemishes of character. It is not the minutia of imperfection that matters. That is the unhappy dilemma of legalism. Rather it is the direction of life and our choices resulting in a pattern of congruency that brings the inner peace that we associate with happiness.
  • A flawed belief system works against happiness. While this might sound a bit audacious, the reality is many people have never put their belief system through the hoops. It is tempting to underestimate the importance of a healthy belief system. Without it we are like a rudderless ship sailing without a compass. Hand-me-down beliefs and cultural rules, norms and mores; fragmented ideas; popular opinion; deference to authority figures and experts;  letting others do the thinking for us – are some of the blocks to testing and owning our own beliefs.
  • Happiness is not going to happen if we don’t make the effort to sort out what we really believe. Doing so can have its share of surprises and is often challenging but the willingness to go down that path does have its reward.
  • Just because a person thinks differently to the way I do and has a different belief system does not mean that they cannot achieve happiness. Remember, the clue is in the congruency between their belief and their action. That’s what makes the difference – even if I think their belief is wrong.
  • Inner contentment does not mean that we are content with everything in our lives. There are times when discontent can actually be a positive motivator for change. To use an analogy, it is rather like the body temperature. Our body can take quite a hammering and still maintain an even temperature, day in and day out over many years. It is one of the best indicators that all is well on the inside. Few things will prompt us to see a doctor more quickly than a rise in temperature. Likewise, the person who knows inner contentment is not going to avoid the stress and strain of everyday living, but their sense of well-being is an affirming indicator of their core emotional and spiritual health.

simplicityWe already have the answers to life and happiness in the common-sense solutions within reach of all of us . . actually inside of us. Sometimes we just need some simple tools to help us make sense of it all.

a few more favourite quotes


The counterfeits of happiness

Australia’s first European murderer was also a mass murderer who also holds the highest tally of murders in the country’s history. He is virtually unknown to most Australians, and remarkably, for all his evil he only ever killed one person, an infant. Yet, this this evil man who forced others to perform his dastardly deeds makes the infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly,  quite angelic in comparison .

When the day of justice finally arrived, he was hanged on a makeshift gallows with these ‘others’ on the first structure ever to be built by Europeans in Australia. He directed more than 110 murders and indirectly was responsible for another 100 or so deaths. The story of the shipwreck of the Batavia in 1629 and the rebellion of Jeronimus Cornelisz on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands (left: scene of the rebellion, Beacon Island) off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australiais one of the darkest chapters in Australian history, eclipsed only by the extermination of as many as 30,000 Indigenous Australians but the early settlers.

Batavia_PorticoSo where is the link to happiness? When the Batavia set sail from Amsterdam with 341 souls on board she epitomised the power and wealth of the mighty Dutch East India Company (VOC). It carried one-sixth of the wealth of the Dutch colonial initiative in all manner of treasure and coin as well as troops and weapons which collectively would have provided an enormous boost to the power and luxurious life-style of the Dutch in SE-Asia. The ship itself was the C17th equivalent of the Queen Mary 2. Deep within the hold were the stones of a beautifully crafted portico which was to adorn the fortified entrance to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java. When the sip foundered on Morning Reef these stones remained with the wreck for nearly 350 years until they were eventually salvaged in the 1970’s. (Pictured in the Geraldton Museum)

In ways the Batavia story was supposed to be a journey of happiness. The majestic VOC flagship was built to bring wealth and prosperity to the Dutch colonies. It was laden with the best that a life of luxury could offer from exquisite works of art to the finest cuisine. The trade in rare and exotic spices of the Orient was flourishing and the Dutch were riding a wave of unprecedented prosperity as a result of its newfound trade and dominance of the seas. But there was one serious flaw in the whole business. It was built on the wrong foundation. The great colonising countries of Europe were motivated by greed and fueled by brutal cruelty and disregard of the value of human life. The idea that prosperity and happiness is obtainable at the expense of the happiness of someone else is probably the greatest and most repeated counterfeits of happiness. History tells its own story – there are no winners in war and bloodshed. The legacy is fear, distrust, grief and enduring unhappiness and wretchedness.

Most would agree that while power and wealth may bring prosperity as well as many other benefits, they never seriously claim to promote happiness.  The counterfeits of happiness, however, are subtly different. A counterfeit is a look-alike which promises what it cannot deliver. For example, if you were to watch the ads on commercial television for an hour you could almost believe that all those beautiful happy, successful and smiling people have reached that elevated state because of what they eat, or the car they drive, or the brand of makeup they use, even the toothpaste that whitens their smiling teeth and the toilet paper that loves their bottoms. Most of us are not convinced. We know that the promises and the expectations of the adverts do not correlate with the reality of life and that happiness is not a commodity which can bought or sold. This branding of happiness is the most shoddy of counterfeits and is largely directed at young viewers who are the most impressionable.

There are a couple of more appealing and convincing counterfeits which are more sophisticated and harder to pick. Both are perfectly legitimate pursuits and have their rightful place in life. Just realise that they are not the path to happiness. Both make appealing promises and both deliver the goods, but the goods are not ‘happiness’

Head happiness

I have just finished reading an article that proposes twenty things that we must do in order to be happy. I was challenged by the opening line which stated, “You have to do hard things to be happy in life. The things no one else is doing.” While it was a typical motivational article which underscored many of the hard things we need to do in order to be successful it missed the point in what it promised. Happiness is not an action or a sequence of actions or the result of activity. In this age of quick fixes it would be wonderful if we could follow a formula knowing that at the conclusion we would reach the goal of happiness. But that is not the nature of happiness.  Even the most meticulous execution of the twenty points would not guarantee happiness. You may feel good at the end of the exercise, but the article has still missed the point. It cannot deliver on the promise for the simple reason that happiness is not something you do and it is not something you feel. It is certainly not something you can promise. It is a consequence of something you are. Happiness is not a quantifiable commodity and it is not achieved at a head level.

The same could be said for many a religious quest for meaning and truth. The agonising hours of soul-searching, confession of sin, repentance, prayers and self-denial are every bit as much a  counterfeit formula for the same reason – happiness is not to be found in doing.

Hedonism happiness

The other very appealing counterfeit is that happiness is essentially about feeling good. It would be easy to adopt a self-righteous ‘wet blanket’ mentality and draw up a long list of no-no’s which would result in taking all  the fun out of life – you know, the old Puritan line of “if it feels good it is sinful.” Hedonism is often targeted as suspect with its self-centred formula for the feel-good life. But we should not be too quick to relegate it to the sin-bin. Its philosophy of maximising pleasure while minimising pain makes a lot of sense in many ways, especially if we temper it with a ‘do no harm’ clause.

Hedonism is great if you can get it to work and is fabulous while it lasts, but it is limited by the dynamic human state. We get old or sick. Life has a way of changing the whole game, and when there is nothing to take its place the pain will begin to outweigh the pleasure. Hedonism promises pleasure, but it needs to be constantly topped up. Also on the minus side, it draws its energy from the state of discontent with the addict always needing the next fix to maintain the feeling of of the high – and discontent is the total opposite of the contentment of happiness. The clue to the counterfeit is again found in the promise of “feel good and you will be happy”. It offers good feelings, but they are not what constitutes happiness.

Again, there is a religious hedonism which offers ecstatic, heavenly or transcendental experiences of joy and other-worldliness which leave the devotee with a remarkable feeling of euphoria and sense of well-being and a conviction that they have been personally touched and blessed by something or someone greater. The problem with this experience is the let-down. One cannot sustain the pressure of the high indefinitely and cannot avoid the inevitable flatness that comes as they return from the clouds to a dreary earth. It promises a great experience, but the experience is not happiness.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, we seem to be continually sidetracked by the semantics of a word which is used too loosely. Fun, pleasure, thrill, ecstasy, excitement, euphoria and the like, are perfectly legitimate feelings which we can all enjoy. It’s just that they are transient and lack the authenticity of that deep inner contentment which is the real substance of enduring happiness. We need to see them for what they are and not place unrealistic expectations on them to be anything other than enjoyable passing experiences. There is a certain irony that is possible to have fun and still not be happy, and you can miss out on the all the fun and still be happy. Work that out!

Okay! So happiness is not a commodity. It is not something you do. It is not a feeling. It is a state of being and a state of mind . . What exactly is it? That is what this blog will consider from many angles as it unfolds over the ensuing months. Rest assured though, happiness is real even though it may be difficult to define. This journey of understanding will take us into the same space as that ultimate of all experiences– love. It will be interesting.

A stand of trees at dusk in a ploughed field in the Mallee district between Renmark and Mildura, NSW Australia

What makes people unhappy

While happiness might be difficult to define, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to unhappiness. We are usually in no doubt when we are unhappy or miserable. It is also much easier to identify what is making us unhappy, which means that we are better placed to do something about it. But let’s keep one thing clear, however, eliminating unhappiness from our lives is not a short-cut to being happy. It may be a contributing factor but it is not the answer in itself, but it is a good starting point. So while happiness is about being, dealing with unhappiness is more about doing.

An example. I am a basically happy person who is stuck in a very toxic work environment and have been sucked into the culture. I am becoming increasingly critical, obstructive, doing my job and no more, wasting time, disloyal … got the picture. I need the money but I am terribly unhappy with the job and do not like the person I am becoming. It is really getting to me, affecting my private life and I am miserable. There are a number of options open to me which can restore the balance. I can remove myself from the unhappy environment and find another job – if I am prepared to take the risk. Or, I can change the way that I deal with the problems. Regardless of the choices, it is within my power to do something about my unhappiness.


Happiness and temperature – an analogy:

tempuratureWith only the slightest variations our body maintains a steady temperature of  37º C (98.6º F) when all is well. Most of the time we don’t give it a passing thought. Our temperature is a remarkably good indicator of wellness and equilibrium of the many complex processes that combine to give us good heath. It is not a single organ which can be isolated and treated.  It can be measured easily, though we rarely bother as we know intuitively when it rises or falls. Happiness works much the same way. It is not something we dwell on. It is not a specific attribute of human behaviour. It is the global indicator that all is well where it counts in our lives.

However, when our body temperature rises we are very quick to respond, and with the sophistication of modern medicine we are usually able to diagnose the cause of the internal disturbance. While happiness may be rather nebulous and is the cumulative result of many factors, unhappiness is usually specific and identifiable. People know when and why they are unhappy.


The two main reasons why people are unhappy.

There are many reasons why people are unhappy but most fall under these two headings. They are separate but inseparable factors.

Invalidation –   and everything that flows from it of it. I would estimate that more than ninety per cent of the unhappiness I have encountered in people’s lives has its roots in invalidation. This topic is so important that it will be considered in depth in later postings of this blog. It refers to the countless ways that we depreciate the value of ourselves and each other. It can be overt or imperceptibly subtle, but it is always destructive. It is so habituated that people are rarely aware of it, hence they do not develop the skills required to deal with it effectively. It begins in the home and overflows into every other domain of our lives, especially schools and the workplace.

This is where so much rejection and hurt begins. It is where we learn to use power incorrectly and, from an early age, engage in endless futile power struggles. Invalidation is responsible for low self-esteem and self-loathing. It disregards boundaries and is the antithesis of love and the progenitor of hate in damaging and dysfunctional relationships. It is where control and dominance disempower us. I do not hesitate to nominate it as the prime source of unhappiness. The good news is that we can rise above it, so watch this space.

The old city of Srinagar, Kashmir, India

Poor Choices:

At first glance this might seem like an unlikely cause of unhappiness, but bear with me.

On the outside our lives are basically a compilation of things we do and say. Behind the scenes is a flurry of mental activity associated with our thoughts and feelings which are in effect the on/off switches of the choices of what we will actually do and say.

Many of our choices are just routine habits and useful templates that are tried and tested time-savers which enable us to do mundane tasks with the minimum of expended energy. Most of the time they are so automated that we hardly recognise them as choices – but they are.

However, life often requires us to make complex choices which are not only a challenge, they also have the potential to bring us undone. The real problem with choice begins when we are confronted with decisions which require more than a pre-programmed response.
What happens when:

  • we don’t know what to do?
  • others question our choices?
  • we have made a bad choices which can’t be undone and have to endure the serious consequences?
  • we are confronted with too many choices?
  • we don’t have enough options?
  • we are given bad advice?
  • we don’t have a clear picture of our rights and responsibilities?
  • we are forced to make choices for others?
  • others make choices for us?
  • we are forced to choose against our better judgement
  • we compromise out beliefs?
  • we don’t have time to think things through?
  • we procrastinate and postpone making a choice?
  • we take the soft option?
  • we look for quick or simplistic answers?
  • we look for the answers on-line?

You could no doubt add to this list. It is the end result that of interest, namely stress, confusion and self-doubt. Add to this regret, sorrow and frustration at not being able to undo the consequences. A single poor choice can change the course of a life in an instant and haunt us for evermore. It can impact on so many other people. What might seem at the time to be an insignificant choice can have far-reaching implications.

Choices_02Fisherman casting his net, Penang, Malaysia

So, what happens with making choices and why do so many people make poor choices.


  • we do not spend enough time thinking about our choices.
  • we react to situations instead of responding.
  • we don’t listen to advice or we don’t like being told what to do
  • our belief system is flimsy and lacking depth.
  • we are locked in to our belief system making it impossible to change our minds.
  • we don’t place sufficient value on the importance of wisdom
  • we don’t learn from our mistakes and can’t see ourselves as the problem

Again, we could add to this list. But the point is that poor choices are the cause of much unhappiness. They encourage denial and playing ‘blame games’ or rationalising one’s behaviour, all of which compound the unhappiness. Even more to the point, as with the process of invalidation, it is within our power to do something about it. In the process of moving away from unhappiness we might even findourselves walking on the path of happiness.



happiness_lifeThe mountains and jungle of Munnar, Kerala, India