Motivation as Instinct: Part Two

Motivation is energy. It is a pro-life force. It is what makes life worth living.

TAKING OUR CUE FROM TODDLERS: 12 major life forces

  • Physical expression
  • Drive towards ownership
  • Exploration/Curiosity
  • Imitation
  • Desire and Envy
  • Flow
  • Mastery/Autonomy
  • Connection/Acknowledgement
  • Safe haven
  • Identity
  • Power
  • A connection to natural spaces

  1. Movement (Physical expression)

Physical exploration is an inherent feature of homo sapiens. We love to explore with our bodies – after all, how did we get to migrate all over the world?

This section is divided into 4 parts: Young children, Older Children, Adolescence and Adulthood.

young children

If we can allow this in our children, and not stop them in their tracks too often, if we can ensure that, in line with their development over time, they have age-appropriate opportunities to express and explore with their bodies, AND if we can use this instinctive drive, and channel it towards constructive activities, then we should have lively children, with lively motivational drives marked by curiosity and energy.

A note of warning: A toddler who is regularly stopped from expressing this instinctual, natural drive, will (naturally) throw tantrums. Will become difficult and obstreperous: It is a natural drive being blocked -what else do you expect? Children without constructive opportunities will use destructive ones or even worse, become lethargic and numb out this drive in front of an electronic device until the brain patterns connected with bodily exploration shut down.

 “From a functionalist perspective, anger is conceptualized as a response to a blocked goal and is associated with approach behaviors to remove the block and achieve the goal, while sadness occurs in response to a loss and is more associated with withdrawal and abandonment of the goal ” (Carver, 2004)

A word of warning to parents with small children who are in daycare. Many daycare settings limit physical exploration for practical and safety reasons: Ensure that there is enough space for your toddler to move about and that they allow children to do so. Take your child out regularly to places that naturally evoke the drive towards physical exploration, e.g. swimming pools, the beach, parks, and forests.

And yes, too much structure can kill off spontaneity too. If you observe children during lessons (karate, ball games, etc), you will notice that much kidding about erupts as naturally as a spring of water. Children love constructing shelters from blankets and cushions. The fun is in the making, so don’t spoil their fun by making it for them- it is the physicality of it that matters. This is why the best tree houses are those made by the children themselves.

Older children

Older children love speed and making fires and night marches. Horse-riding, experimenting during skiing or cycling, marshall arts – the exhilaration of testing the body under slightly ‘dangerous’ and provocative circumstances. It is a precursor of adolescence. Depriving young children of physical adventures will lead to general dysphoria. If you ask a primary school child what they did over the weekend, and they reply “watch tv, go to the movies, go the mall, or even worse, “nothing”, you will know that this child is being deprived of life-giving forces.

If they reply, ” went to swim in my friend’s pool, went hiking with my parents and some friends, went to the skate-board park, played video-games with friends, went fishing with my uncle, made a fancy dress costume for a party with my grandmother, etc., you will know that this child is being nourished from the outside


This drive now ups the game. Real physical testing can be taken to its limits. How much can one drink, how fast can you drive, skiing on black slopes, diving into water from dangerously high rocks, how little can you eat, etc.

It is the motivation to express oneself physically, and to physically explore the interaction between self and environment. It is the joy of being out there.

Adolescence is the time of fertility, both metaphysical and real. Music and dance are the natural expressions of the teenage body, also experiences of divine ecstasy. (The innate markers of music & dance exist in the toddler> Play some music by abba, and observe the toddler. Here now, in adolescence, it erupts). Physical and creative expression provides vitality. It is the beginning of the play with life and death. Poetry, including rap, and experimentation with the look of the body – tattoos, clothes, hair, jewelry – is part of an acute bodily phase.

On the negative side are all the bodily disorders; distress arising in the body in response to the personal and the social environment. Eating disorders, cutting, and/or gender dysmorphia are interactions between a disturbed (read unbalanced) personal environment that combines with a disturbed (read overly challenging, unnatural) social environment. This leads to great distress in the transition. It leads to the negation of the body, or disassociation from the body, from revenge on the body to hatred of the body. As the body becomes unloved, depression and sadness set in. The current riptide of gender confusion will sow havoc in this group, as this is an acutely bodily sensitive stage.

Positive bodily expressions can be magnificent though, as the young body is usually supple and elastic. Sport, dance, music, rock-climbing, and animal interactions (dogs and horses are great at this age) can all add to the natural expression of the body. Ice-skating, roller-blading, surfing… Water is an amazing element to interact with at this stage as it can provide both sensory stimulation and adventure.

Without adequate sources for expression, alcohol and drug abuse, internet addiction, as well as indiscriminate sex, can quickly fill this space. For the body to thrive and to express itself – which it desperately wants to do at this stage – it is begging for an outlet.


Adulthood can be roughly categorised into the following tasks:

  • Mating
  • Childbearing and rearing
  • Career building
  • Community belonging
  • Integration of identity
  • Restoration

A reminder from the toddlers

Although I am discussing the forces separately, they function best when they are interconnected. The more elements we combine, the more meaningful our experience will be. When I was young, I loved skiing in the mountains. The best times were with my brother. We were both equally agile and would intersperse flowing without words with active exploration, experiencing all of the above.

We may think that adulthood is about remaining fit and healthy. And of course, there are many reasons why this matters.

Physical activity has a huge potential to enhance our wellbeing. Even a short burst of 10 minutes’ brisk walking increases our mental alertness, energy and positive mood. Participation in regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem and can reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.

I suspect that we all know this. What I suspect that we tend to forget is, that to feel truly alive, we need to move as much as toddlers do: Explorations in nature, the physical accomplishments of extending ourselves, building activities (changing our furniture around, building a shack, painting a wall, gardening, etc), making music and dancing – to regularly engage in activities that are joyously physical.

After a close family member died, and I had coped for everyone, I fell into darkness. One Sunday my daughter said, “I know what you need”. She drove me to the nearest beach for a surfing lesson. It was a glorious day, and the beach was packed. My daughter would urge me onto her surfboard, and when a wave came, she would push me and shout, “Go, mother go!” Soon there was a chorus from a family sitting on the shore, “Go mother go!” I laughed so much, I mostly fell off the board. But hey, I was out of the darkness, back into life.

We are sensorial beings. Hear, smell, taste, feel. Being physical is being able to experience all of these: The feel of the breeze, the smell of the forest, the taste of the water, the sound of the wind. It is innate.


Carver, C. S. (2004). Self-regulation of action and affect. In R.F.Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 13–39). New York, NY:Guilford Press.

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