The Mechanisms Behind Motivation

A myriad of factors impact students’ motives and mental health, which can result in burnout



Students often begin to feel symptoms of burnout as the end of the school year approaches


As the end of spring semester approaches, students may tend to put little to no effort into academics. This time of year is popularly characterized as the time when students, particularly seniors, lose motivation.

One might rather spend a sunny afternoon out with friends instead of attending a block class because they don’t see their academic effort as worthwhile. However, lack of motivation can be an indicator of mental health problems.

Skipping classes, lackluster effort in assignments and overall neglect of academic responsibilities are common signs of burnout. While it is normal to not want to do academic work, failure to complete work may lay the foundation for bad habits.

The Physiological Loop of Motivation

Jeffrey Ng, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Fordham Lincoln Center, said that he commonly hears from students who are unable to become motivated to do work or even perform everyday tasks. Two particular symptoms that he has noticed are avolition, the state of being completely unmotivated to do anything, and anhedonia, the seeming inability to feel pleasure. These symptoms both indicate underlying concerns, including burnout, sleep deprivation and mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Our mental state influences and is influenced by our physiological state. When our sleep or calorie intake is insufficient, our bodies undergo more physiological stress, which can make us irritable and fatigued. Sleep deprivation can cause or aggravate mental health symptoms such as mood disorders and even psychosis. Being able to obtain and maintain motivation is heavily dependent upon one’s sleep and eating habits. 

What Causes Motivation?

John Hollwitz, professor of industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology at Fordham, defined motivation as “persistence of effort over time.” This, however, doesn’t account for how and why we get motivated in the first place. Hollwitz turned to research in the business world that has identified “the big three senses” that factor into motivation: well-being, meaning and dignity. When actualized, they are what fuel people’s motivation to perform a task with interest and vigor. 

Many have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which argues that humans need to first address basic necessities before going on to achieve other wants and needs. However, recent studies in the field of I/O psychology have led to many criticisms of the hierarchy.

“We know through empirical studies that Maslow’s hierarchy is wrong; you don’t need a laboratory experiment to show that,” he said.

Motivators in school can include one’s GPA, curiosity and support from professors, while hygiene factors could include the school’s reputation and quality of its amenities.

Hollwitz cited how high-risk jobs like firefighters and military personnel violate the hierarchy by seeming to pursue higher functioning needs, such as duty or altruism, while neglecting more basic ones, like immediate safety. In place of Maslow, psychologists have adopted another model that is more heavily backed by research.

I/O psychologist Frederick Herzberg created a two-factor model, where humans are influenced by “motivating factors” like recognition and by “hygiene factors,” such as the work environment. Motivators in school can include one’s GPA, curiosity and support from professors, while hygiene factors could include the school’s reputation and quality of its amenities. 

Over time, the understanding of how people become motivated has come to include pro-social factors such as “employee altruism, respecting human dignity, well-being and physical health,” Hollwitz said. He added that he is “very convinced” that the future goals of how organizations function will involve putting emphasis on individual needs and senses of personal fulfillment.

In the Wake of COVID-19

Clinical psychologists face many challenges in helping people regain motivation in their daily lives. The COVID-19 pandemic, specifically, has ushered in a mental health crisis, especially among teenagers and young adults.

More than one in three students have reported feeling symptoms of depression, including a loss of motivation, since 2019. College students, in particular, have faced a sharp increase in depression and anxiety, which has swamped counseling services and therapists nationwide. Faced with a lack of available resources, many are turning to more accessible methods that offer cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Treatments such as online therapy have been shown to be just as effective in treating anxiety and depression as in-person CBT.

The most important factors in achieving results are to regularly attend therapy sessions and set moderate, realistic goals for oneself. According to Ng, we can maintain a healthy mood by “ensuring that we are attending to our basic needs, such as sleep, nutrition, physical activity and social contact.” These activities, when done habitually, lead to greater feelings of well-being and confidence while reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Get the latest Fordham sports updates on your Twitter feed. Follow The Observer’s sports Twitter page here.