JOONDALUP, Australia — Are you chasing your dreams, or just trying to avoid your worst nightmare? Researchers from Edith Cowan University examined why we pursue our goals, how our ambitions influence mental well-being, and the importance of understanding what truly motivates people.
This first-of-its-kind project, conducted by ECU researchers Bridget Robson and Professor Joanne Dickson, included 210 participants. Study authors surveyed them on the relationship between their underlying goal motives, emotion regulation, anxiety, and depression.
Researchers focused on two specific types of motives underpinning the pursuit of personal goals: avoidance-oriented, or working to avoid threatening or feared outcomes, and approach-oriented, or striving toward desirable and pleasant outcomes. Ultimately, the investigation revealed that people who pursued goals with the underlying motive being fear (avoidance) were much more likely to deal with emotion regulation difficulties. This increased symptoms of both anxiety and depression.
Professor Dickson believes personal awareness of what drives us to achieve our goals is a critical step in protecting mental health.
“It’s also important to understand that an approach-oriented motive may underpin an avoidance goal, and vice versa,” Dickson says in a university release. “For example, an underlying avoidance motive, to avoid social rejection, may stimulate adoption of the approach goal behavior, to appear sociable and talk to several people at a party.”
“Or, alternatively, an approach goal to do well in an exam may be driven by the motive to avoid feeling a failure or upsetting one’s parents. Having awareness of underlying motives that drive personal goals, potentially gives people an opportunity to reflect and to create choices, such as adapting or reframing personal goals, motives or thinking, if necessary.”
‘Avoidance motivation typically increases negative emotions’
Meanwhile, Bridget Robson notes that while avoidance may help in the short term — for instance, by helping one avoid imminent physical danger like a flood — choosing avoidance for the long-term has a closer connection with increased anxiety.
“Avoidance motivation typically increases negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety when the threatening scenario seems imminent,” Robson explains. “Reframing avoidance motives may be a useful strategy in protecting against difficulties in emotional regulation and anxiety. For example, fear of failing an exam, might be reframed as striving towards passing.”
The researcher adds that these findings add further clarity to modern science’s understanding of the nature of depression and anxiety, pertaining to both a motivation and emotional regulation perspective.
“This is the first study to explore underlying approach and avoidance motivations and emotion regulation difficulties in relation to depression and anxiety,” Dickson concludes.
“Although we found avoidance motives increased emotion regulation difficulties which in turn exacerbated depression and anxiety, approach motives did not lead to emotion regulation difficulties or depression and anxiety, suggesting that approach motives that drive personal goal pursuit seem to play a protective role in maintaining mental wellbeing.”
All in all, study authors conclude these findings hold major implications for self-management and ongoing therapy developments, in addition to mental health promotion programs.
The findings appear in the journal Australian Psychologist.