Motivation and will to live: where to find them?

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Louise Hay
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Motivation and will to live: where to find them?

Sometimes despite being at the limit of our strength, we nurture the hope and motivation that allow us to move forward. Where does this spark, this life force come from? 

Written and verified by the psychologist GetPersonalGrowth.

Last update: 15 November 2021

During the Second World War, the Japanese called bura bura, or abandonment sickness, the phenomenon in which some prisoners fell into a state of lethargy, to the point of allowing themselves to die. Where does the brain find the motivation and the will to live? When do we end up losing hope, desire and even the survival instinct?



It is a question that has been of interest to experts for decades and not. For Nick Moloney, one of the most famous sailors in the world, it is a mental attitude: dying is easy, living is more difficult. He himself found himself in extreme situations, where the pain was so intense that the lack of adrenaline prevented him from continuing to navigate.

It happened to him, once, to get trapped, hurt and adrift and completely lose the will to live. This is the worst psychological scenario you can fall into, because hope disappears and with it the desire to fight and fight.

In these moments the human being is obliged to make a last effort, which goes beyond physical strength and which appeals to the emotional sphere. What does the latter consist of? How to recover motivation when we find ourselves in extreme situations?

Where does the brain find motivation and will to live?

One of the leading experts in psychological resistance and survival was Al Siebert, a lecturer at the University of Michigan. One of his best-known books on the subject is The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter and More Skillfull at Handling Life's Difficulties. In this essay he presents numerous examples of survival and even defeat.



One of the most striking cases was that of a Canadian plane carrying 18 military personnel that crashed near a Canadian Arctic base. Thirteen men survived, managing to advance for four days to the military base. Of the others, three died instantly and two, despite not being injured, were frozen to death. This last case left everyone baffled.

As Siebert assures, in that area, despite the harsh climate, the indigenous community leads a normal life and the children grow up happy. The survivors were military, they were equipped and they had the remains of the plane to protect themselves from the cold. However, as survivors say, two soldiers decided to stop. They had given up. 

Al Siebert called psychogenic death the phenomenon whereby the human being gives up and lets himself die. This seems to be more common than you think. A question therefore arises spontaneously: where do we get motivation and will to live?

Motivation and will to live: dopamine is not everything

One thing we know from neuroscience is that thehe dopamine and the nucleus accumbens are the center of pleasure and motivation. Dopamine regulates behaviors that generate well-being, such as eating, socializing, having fun, having sexual intercourse. But survival is also boosted by this neurotransmitter.

However, studies such as the one conducted in Germany at the Neuroscience Department of the University of Cologne offer an interesting insight. The researchers observed in mice that, faced with a depleted dopamine level, the animals continued to engage in motivational behaviors that guarantee their survival.


It is also known that Parkinson's patients, despite their disease leading to a lack of dopamine in the brain, do not lose interest in eating, socializing or performing those behaviors that guarantee their survival. This shows us that there is more than just neurochemistry.


The importance of habits, purpose and a full and active social life

Where does the brain get its motivation and will to live? Until recently we thought that everything depended on that neurological universe: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. However, the brain doesn't produce these chemicals just for the fun of it. They are released into the bloodstream because something favors this mechanism.


Surviving requires effort and motivation

But let's go back to the case of the military in the Canadian Arctic. Those 13 people who were saved had hope. They knew that moving for help was a winning move, compared to standing still and giving up. Simply having a purpose stimulates the release of these neurotransmitters.

The injured and adrift sailor had lost the strength or motivation to continue steering his boat. But he recovered it by remembering that he has a family, people who loved him. Remembering why we exist, he feeds the motivation that keeps us alive, which leads us to fight for existence.

Equally important are habits. Nobody would want (motivation) to get up at 6 in the morning to exercise. But being firm in our habits allows us to maintain a healthy lifestyle.


If we were asked where the brain derives its motivation, there is one last aspect that should not be underestimated. As the word itself suggests, motivation needs "reasons" to take action. And these are offered to us by an active life, by social contacts, by good relationships.

The will to live is not a factory endowment, we have to find it every day setting goals, appreciating what's on our hands, and feeding hope.

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