Motivation: Fun vs. Fear

Originally published 11/26/2016. Lead image from Angie on Pexels.

Why Joy Exists, and Why It’s Just as Good, if not Better, than Fear
Explained through 
Roller Coasters

When I was in the sixth grade, my English teacher told us a story about the best persuasive essay she’d ever read from one of her students. The argument of the essay? Everything we do in life is motivated by fear.

Why do we go to work? To get money. Why money? So we can buy food. So we don’t starve. Fear of death = motivation of everything.

I accepted this as fact for a while, listing different examples in my mind. Students taking extracurricular for fear of not getting into college, giving into peer pressure for fear of being an outsider, dieting for fear of ridicule or health problems…

And then I got to roller coasters. Why do we ride roller coasters? For fear of…not having fun?

Not everything we do in life is motivated by fear. There is another motivator: joy. The lucky ones don’t work just to earn money, but to enjoy their work. The lucky ones spend hours playing videogames or board games. And the lucky and unlucky alike do irrational things for love. Not all of our choices are defined by fear.

But all of the things above seem frivolous, or even counterproductive. Why fight a monster to save the love of your life when it could get you killed? Why pick a fun yet low-paying job? Why waste time playing games when it could be spent studying, or learning something productive?

That’s the ticket right there: games. Humans are attracted to joyful things because we evolved that way. Joy would not have lasted long in nature if it didn’t have a good return on its investment; only the best traits survive. We’ve all learned the purpose of those games that young mammals play: kittens play fight, puppies play tug-of-war, and young foals chase each other around. And all because those games actually gain them valuable skills: fighting, hunting, and running.

Ok, so lion cubs learn to fight by play wrestling. Why does that justify videogames? To answer that question, we must consider another: why did evolution choose to make play enjoyable, and not just something we naturally practiced? Why can’t those baby animals just learn through practice, and leave the fun games aside?

Because joy is addictive. Joy is the reason that researchers spend all hours of the night in their labs, and why people do such stupid things to impress their significant others. Fear is the motivation that makes us reach our goal. Thanks to fear, we go to work. Thanks to fear, we call our parents at least once a month. But it’s thanks to joy that we call our parents daily. It’s thanks to joy that Mount Rushmore was built. It’s thanks to that natural urge that joy brings—call it what you want: curiosity, fulfillment, fun, love, any positive emotion at all. It’s thanks to that that we go above and beyond.

Yes, joy can also make us do things that really aren’t productive. But so can fear. Believe it or not, both motivational factors are, well, motivating—regardless of logic.

So the next time that you act out of fear, or your friend becomes convinced that love has no purpose in life, remember this blog. Remember that there is a practical, evolutionary, positively scientific reason for having joy in our lives.

Now go have some fun.

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