Motivation to Meet Our Needs

I was running low on motivation this week. Instead of coming up with a post idea, I decided to take it easy on myself and change the world instead.


Jane’s World Changing Discovery

The documentary Jane about the renowned ape researcher Jane Goodall, focuses on a discovery that changed the world.

Jane observed an ape she named David Greybeard strip down a piece of vegetation so that he could insert it into a termite hole and withdraw it for access to a quick and easy snack. She reported her observation to her sponsor Louis Leakey, and that modified piece of vegetation rocked the world.

It proved that humans were not the only animals that used tools. We’d have to revise the definition of what it meant to be human or invite the apes to join our club.

My World Changing Discovery

After watching the documentary, I made a discovery of my own. I figured out a new way to rinse and refill our cat Rusty’s water bowl.

When Rusty recognizes the telltale signs that I’m going to bed, he begins to hover around me and perform his nightly nag. The sound, phonetically spelled Ra-o roughly translates to “I am dissatisfied.” He makes this sound a lot. Sometimes I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. After arduous trial and error, however, he’s trained me to associate the bedtime complaints with refilling his dry food and water bowls.

His motivation is similar to that of the apes. He wants a snack.

My motivation is to get him to stop nagging me so that I can brush my teeth, take a shower, and go to bed without him being underfoot.

The Importance of Context

For you to be as impressed with my discovery as Jane was with David’s organic kitchen utensil, some context is important.

Since I fractured my left foot, crutches have made it difficult to transport open containers of liquid like Rusty’s bowl. I had experimented with carrying his mostly empty bowl the twelve feet between his feeding area and the nearest sink by bracing it with a couple fingers in one of my crutch hands. My movement was too jerky, and it spilled.

The previous two solutions to this problem were:

  1. Refill the bowl with the water bottle I carried around my neck.
  2. Maneuver between Rusty’s feeding area and the sink by using an office chair with casters.

I’d use the chair when Rusty’s water got furry, motivated by my dislike for hairballs, which require me to transport pet stain cleaner and paper towels.

Motivation to Innovate

The chair method took for rinse and refill was time consuming and clunky. It caused the voice in my head to nag at me the same way that Rusty did. It kept saying there must be a better way to do this. After watching Jane’s discovery, something clicked.

Though my arms could not span the twelve feet from Rusty’s feeding area to the sink, I could get it moving in the right direction. By picking up the bowl with my left hand, transferring it to my right, and setting it down again on a nearby table, I could gain four feet. I could then hop with my crutches and repeat the action to move it five feet from the tray to a standing cabinet close to the sink. Another crutch hop or two and I was home free.

Reverse the process: Rusty had a fresh, full water bowl, and I could get ready for bed without tripping over him.

The Mother of Invention

There’s a well-worn saying that necessity is the mother of invention.

Anyone who dipped a toe in psychology when I went to school has vague recollections of the pyramid graphic of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.”


From bottom to top, these needs are:

  • Physiological (nutrition, water, warmth, sleep)
  • Safety
  • Love/belonging (intimate relationships and friendship)
  • Esteem (sense of accomplishment)
  • Self-actualization (sense of purpose, creativity)

We might think of animals as focusing on low-level survival needs. But, if we look at how the brain works, we discover that animals like David and Rusty are after bigger game.

Reward Points

If we imagine that David had invented his termite snacking technique instead of learning it from an elder, he wouldn’t have starved to death without adding termites to his diet. It didn’t impact his safety or his sense of belonging. But, when he discovered how to get at the termites, a dopamine release activated the pleasure center of his brain. The physiological pat on the back boosted his sense of esteem. And, since the solution required creativity, he could climb to the top of the pyramid: self-actualization.

Rusty’s dry food bowl and water never go completely empty. He’s become so skillful at nagging that his food, shelter, and safety needs are assured. The nightly nag might have to do with acknowledgment that this is his final opportunity of the day for belonging through interaction with the house humans. It’s also his chance to elevate esteem by establishing that he can still control me.

My bowl rinsing maneuver met my physiological needs by helping me get to sleep a minute or two sooner. It improved my safety by reducing the chance I’d trip over Rusty. I was happy to make the discovery so it boosted my esteem, and (at least for me) it involved creativity: self-actualization.

If that’s all there were to motivation, we’d be motivated all the time. Unfortunately, besides our dopamine reward system, our pre-ape ancestors left us with another gift that keeps on giving.   


“But you don’t need to use crutches anymore,” said Samantha when I shared news of my exciting discovery with her at Social Club.

She was right. I didn’t. You’d think I’d be much happier about learning that morning that I didn’t have to use crutches. While the rest of the world saw my freedom from crutches as more newsworthy, inwardly, that discovery had already lost its fizz.

The podiatrist had informed me about the timeline for crutches three weeks ago. That morning’s visit merely confirmed it. As good as our brain is at rewarding us when we make a discovery, it’s better at taking good fortune for granted and moving on in search of the next dopamine reward.

By the time Jane thrilled to David’s termite snack, it was utterly mundane for the ape. Rusty’s nagging is sometimes so halfhearted that on rare occasions he gives me a pass.

I eagerly shared my water bowl discovery because I knew the glory was fleeting. In order for the discovery to change my world by scoring a dopamine hit for my belonging needs, I had to tell friends ASAP.

Motivation to Change Our World

Trying to change the world in order to be happy is a recipe for endless dissatisfaction.

The bad news is that the stars that had to align for Jane to change the world will never align again. Human knowledge is compounding at such a rapid rate that conventional wisdom says no individual will ever make such an impact again.

The good news is that by training ourselves to observe our body, feelings, mental inclinations, and interactions with the animate and inanimate objects we encounter in our daily lives, each of us can discover ways to change our world.

All of us have the potential to harness the same motivational brain functions that David, Rusty, Jane, Maslow, and I used. And, thanks to the cumulative efforts of neuroscientists who observe the brain, we now know that we can make those permanent changes to our world with as little as ten minutes a day of observation.

Ten Minute Exercise

Motivation to meet our needs involves:

  • Recognizing that a need exists.
  • Establishing a cue to take action.
  • Recognizing a reward for meeting the need.

To set our own motivations, we can begin by checking for possible unmet needs on a regular (maybe weekly) basis. If we come up with a manageable action to try (like setting aside ten minutes for exercise x days a week), we can set reminders on our calendar with notifications. If the reward for the action isn’t immediate (to see the results of exercise takes time), we can add an inducement (like listening to music or a podcast we enjoy).

1. Set aside ten minutes with a pen and paper or other writing implements of choice.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Take a moment to note how your mind and body feel right now.

4. Write down the following headings.

• Physiological (nutrition, water, warmth, sleep)

• Safety

• Love/belonging (intimate relationships and friendship)

• Esteem (sense of accomplishment)

• Self-actualization (sense of purpose, creativity)

5. Under each heading, answer these questions:

• How successfully did I meet this need in the past seven days?

• If a need went unmet, what achievable change can I make in my world to better meet that need in the next seven days?

6. If you get stuck, or ten minutes elapses before you get to all the headings, don’t worry. Spending ten minutes to evaluate your needs is a good starting point. You’re priming the mental pump for future solutions.

7. If you finish answering the questions before the timer sounds, take the rest of the time to select the most achievable action, and schedule the necessary reminders.

8. When the timer sounds, note how your mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.

If you need help with ideas for handling challenges or bolstering aspects of well-being, click on the appropriate link to get started.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.