I’ve had every motivational problem ever. So when a participant in Launch 21 reported that she suddenly didn’t feel like doing anything, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I call this being in a “funk.” Suddenly, you live in a world that has nothing to offer you. Your work doesn’t interest you, even though yesterday or last week you were highly motivated (as she had been). Talking with friends or family suddenly becomes an irritating chore. Recreation seems pointless.
If this situation lasts for weeks or it happens regularly, you may be clinically depressed. I encourage you to get professional help. Depression is highly treatable. Outside support can show you the rays of hope and the way forward.
What I’m talking about is a funk, which I am stipulating is short term. A funk is in the normal range of emotional upheaval that you need to deal with when you pursue challenging goals. The upheaval is normal because challenging goals put you outside of your comfort zone. Therefore, you should expect to make some mistakes, have some setbacks, and unearth some old baggage. To succeed, you will need to deal constructively with the emotions triggered by these negative events. A funk is a red alert that you need to change the way you’re dealing with either the negative events, or the intense emotions they triggered, or both.
A funk is conclusive evidence that you have activated a threat-based motivational context, i.e., your whole attention is swamped by awareness of threats. You have no mental bandwidth left over to see values and how to gain them. The giveaway is that when you are in a funk, it feels like the world has nothing to offer you. But the whole world did not change overnight. Nor did your values. Nor did your ability to gain your values in the world. The values are still out there; you are just not noticing them. This only happens when your attention is completely focused on negatives.
To understand this, you need to know that you have two independent motivational systems, as I explained in another article. One system (“motivation by love”) alerts you to values in the world. The other (“motivation by fear”) alerts you to threats.
In normal functioning, your attention is focused on gaining values. This is how you sustain life and create your own happiness. Threats come up occasionally and you deal with them by accepting them as facts, then figuring out how you will go ahead and gain your values despite this newly identified threat. The threats may make your pursuit of values more difficult, but they cannot stop you as long as you are alive.
However, this “normal functioning” is not automatic. What is automatic is that whatever you focus on creates a self-reinforcing context.
When you focus on values, you prime a value-oriented context. As you focus on one value, all of your knowledge of the causal connections between it and your other values becomes activated. Is it a means to some other end? What are its benefits? How does it relate to your goals and plans? Your past answers to these questions have organized your knowledge and values logically. This means that these logical connections are easily triggered.
In addition, when you focus on values you feel emotions such as love, joy, and desire. By association, you will activate memories in which you experienced similar positive feelings. Not all positive feelings are value-based, but most of them are. Thus, this process, which is called “emotional generalization,” also serves to trigger value-laden information.
Between logical connections and emotional generalizations, focusing on values ensures that you keep your entire value hierarchy semi-activated in the background of awareness. This means that as you look at the world, you will “see” (i.e., recognize emotionally) the value significance of every object around you. This is the experience Ayn Rand called living in the “benevolent universe” or a “world of values.”
On the other hand, if you focus on threats, you prime a threat-oriented context. All of your knowledge about the threat, its potential damage, and the things you would need to do to counteract it become activated. Plus, you feel emotions such as fear, anger, and frustration. By association, you will activate memories in which you experienced similarly negative emotions. You quickly see the world as filled with danger. This is the experience Ayn Rand called living in a “malevolent universe.”
Absent conscious management, your context can shift very quickly. The threat-based motivational system is stronger and louder than the value-based system. If you are happily going about your business and a threat comes up on the horizon, you get a huge alert that interrupts your happy-go-lucky experience. Emotions are designed to grab your attention; you will suddenly be riveted on the threat. The reverse is not true. When you are focused on threats, value-based emotions don’t break through. The exception is grief, which is the feeling you have when you lose a value. Since grief involves negative affect, it is easily triggered.
That is what has happened when you are in a funk. The essential to remember is: the world is still a world of values. You just need to regain that perspective.
Here are three general approaches you could take:
1. Identify the elephant in the room. Some big threat triggered this switch to a malevolent universe. Identify the threat, accept your emotions about the facts, then figure out how you are going to gain your values anyway. I did this when Covid-19 hit. I needed to know how I would deal with the threats I saw. Then I was fine.
2. Deliberately activate a value-based context. List your top values. Guaranteed, you are feeling deprived of one or more of them. By direct willpower, start going after it. For me, not working on my book is always either a cause or an effect of getting into a funk. If I just throw everything out the window and work on my book, I regain my normal value-oriented perspective.
3. Manage your thoughts. The way you’re thinking about the threat could be reinforcing the vicious cycle. Perhaps you have wailed to yourself, “Things were going so well.” If so, your focus on this contrast just added grief to the fear and frustration cocktail that the threat triggered. “I can’t,” “I don’t know,” and “I have to” are three phrases to look for, because they are always false and they reinforce the threat loop. You can go after your values, you do know enough to figure out a good next step, and you always have a choice.
Sometimes people say pursuing challenging goals requires a struggle. I don’t like that word because it implies pain and suffering to me. Pain and suffering, such as the pain and suffering you experience when you are in a funk, are always a signal that you need to adjust your course. They are not a necessary part of growth, achievement, or success.
But the dictionary definition of struggle is “make forceful or violent efforts to get free of restraint or constriction.” And in that respect, you do need to struggle when you are in a funk. You need to grab yourself and make an explosive effort to shift your attention to values to establish a value-oriented context. A funk is a red alert that you need to shift mental gears. You can do it. The life you gain is your own.