New insight into motivation and happiness

Prevention is the Disease, Not the Cure

There's a tough but fascinating book just out about motivation by Columbia social psychologist E. Tory Higgins.

He lays out how we approach desired goals as "prevention" goals or "promotion" goals. A prevention orientation is "vigilant": we are on alert for the bad stuff NOT to happen. The promotion goal orientation is "eager": we seek for the good stuff to happen. Prevention goals occur to us as necessary (highest priority), while promotion goals occur as nice-to-have (lower priority).

Here's the bitch of it -- and this is me talking, not Professor Higgins -- we mix up these orientations unconsciously. Many of our unexamined "ought/must" prevention goals suck up  time and energy as "false necessities", and our promotion goals, which really are necessary, are robbed of energy and fail to materialize.

Your "prevention goals" are the stuff you would drop everything to handle. It's called prevention because usually these goals are about keeping stuff you already have: job security, health, relationship.

OK, here it gets a little subtle: we sometimes have a prevention orientation to a goal that is in the future. This is everything that we "ought" to do: family obligation demands it, duty, honor. We inherit these obligations from our environment. For me, a light bulb went off when I realized that I went to college and got my Mathematics with Honors degree in a prevention orientation. College literally made me sick, but I never considered not finishing my degree, because that happened to be my family programming, and I never questioned it. I had a strong, unquestioned motivation that I ought to finish college.

The healthy thing for me to do would have been to closely examine my motivation, and either quit college, or change my orientation to an eager, promotion goal orientation. In hindsight, if I had taken the time to examine my motivations, I think I would have shifted my orientation, stayed in college, and finished a much happier person.

This insight of Higgins about prevention/promotion has profound implications for how you relate to your goals, happiness, and aspirations. Higgins quotes psychological studies that show that people who have mostly a vigilant prevention orientation -- i.e. people who walk around worried about stopping the bad stuff from happening -- are far less happy than people who primarily have an eager promotion orientation -- i.e. people who set goals that they want to achieve, but don't feel they must achieve.

Back to me talking (don't want to implicate Professor Higgins in my interpretations here): Everybody has the capacity for both orientations to their goals. Here's where you can get enormous value right now: Everywhere in your life where you choose a prevention orientation falsely, you are wasting energy and happiness. And everywhere in your life where you choose a promotion orientation falsely, you are undermining your foundation.

It's up to you what orientation you take to your goals, and at the end here, I'll walk you through an exercise that helps you reset your orientations to your goals, but first, let's look at some examples.

False or exaggerated prevention:
Consider the case of the stereotypical Asian student who is pressured by his parents to do well in school. "Doing well in school" occurs to the student as a must-have, necessity. "Failure is not an option" is the prevention orientation. If she does well, then her reward is mere relief that she  achieved something that she ought to achieve. If she fails at this necessity, well, sometimes such students take their own lives!

Second example: creeping success. Imagine a stereotypical politician who gets elected to City Council, then to Mayor, then to State representative, then House Speaker, then Governor, then Senator from their state. At each stage, the politician aspires eagerly to the higher position -- but going backward is "unthinkable". Promotional successes migrate to prevention goals. Holding onto power becomes everything, and the politician's actions become a stressful, fearful, cynical reflection of that prevention orientation.

False promotion:
Paying taxes is an appropriate prevention orientation goal. We have to pay them, and if we don't, we get fined or go to jail. But some people inappropriately take a cavalier, taxes-are-not-necessary approach that ends up damaging their life.

Another example is primary relationship: some people take an eager approach to their intimate relationships, in which their goal becomes exploratory, open, or adventurous. This works so long as there is communication and alignment, but can be inappropriate when a prevention, take-care-of-what-we-have approach is more of what is needed to maintain the foundation of one's life.

In false prevention, we treat nice-to-haves as necessities, and our quality of life degrades into stressful "holding on". In false promotion, we treat necessities as nice-to-have, or "taken for granted", and we threaten the foundations of our lives.

Do you see how much more energy and happiness you would have if you prioritized and minimized what are truly necessities and handled them in a perfectly straightforward way? And do you see how much more happiness and freedom you enjoy when you choose your aspirations truly as aspirations, rather than obligations?

This divide between necessity and aspiration is fundamental, and in most people, it is messy, unconscious, confusing. That's why I created this exercise for you to make this divide simple, clear, and conscious.


Here's the quick, simple exercise to sort out your preventions from your promotions:

Part One: IMPORTANT: in order for you to get maximum value from the time and effort you put into this exercise, do ALL of Part One before you move on to Part Two. DO NOT READ PART TWO until you complete Part One.

1.    Make a clear list of "everything that I am afraid to lose". Be specific. Make at least 10 entries on this list "A". Example: all my money, house, car, friends.
2.    Write down "everything that I must accomplish, or else". Make at least 2 entries on this list "B". Example: I must get a promotion by August.
3.    Make a clear list of "everything that I want to accomplish". Make at least 10 entries on this list "C". Example: climb Mt. Kilamanjaro.
4.    Make a clear list of everything that you know you need to handle better, or you will suffer natural consequences down the road. This is list "D". Example: taxes, insurance, family relationships. Make at least 2 entries in D.

5. Move items from C to D if appropriate, for instance if you listed, "stop smoking" in C (what you want), then move it to D (need to handle better).


Part Two: DO PART ONE FIRST before reading and doing Part Two.

Arrange the four lists in front of you.

Now, take a fresh sheet of paper, and make two columns labeled X and Y.

Put the absolute minimum from List A under Column X. Shave down the list as much as possible, of what you really, really feel is super-important to you that can't live without. Be a bit philosophical about it, but also true to yourself.
Put everything from List C under Column X.
When you are done, prioritize items in Column X.
Put everything not already in Column A from List A, into Column Y.
Put everything from List B into Column Y.
Rename Column X as "My Prevention Goals", and rename Column Y  "My Promotion Goals".

Here's how to use your two-column list: tape it up in your workspace. Handle everything under "My Prevention Goals" first. When everything, and I mean everything, is handled impeccably, then go to work with eager abandon on "My Promotion Goals".

Now you've got a powerful, clear conscious, specific tool to allocate your attention and creativity, and increase your happiness and focus!

Thank you, and I really want to hear from you on what you learned about yourself, your success, or how this could be made even better.



About the Author: Nathan Otto

Nathan Otto collaborates for a better world by engaging leaders for better, more effective leadership. He is the co-founder of Holometrics, a strategic consulting ecosystem and technology company which scientifically measures organizational alignment with key objectives and values. He is the founder of the Safe Conflict Project, a global strategic effort to create a world free from war. He is the co-author of Give Peace a Deadline: What Ordinary People Can Do to Create Peace In Five Years.

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