Motivation & Learning: The Impact of Social Media and Mental Health

Part 1: Motivation & Learning: Mental Health

How does our mental health impact our motivation to learn? Whether you’re in middle school, college, receiving training at a technical school, or a working adult, you’ve likely noticed your ability to learn is affected by how motivated you feel.

Before we talk about mental health, let’s talk a little about some theories focused on motivation and learning. Perhaps one of the most well-known motivation theories is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow said most of our actions are driven by our desire to fulfill needs. Maslow also said that needs occur in a hierarchy, meaning that lower level needs must be satisfied before we can fulfill the higher level needs. Physiological needs are the lowest level (our need to have food, water, and shelter). Self-actualization is the highest level need, but we’re not going to focus on that just yet. For now, keep in mind the lower level needs: physiological needs, safety, and belongingness.

Another aspect of motivation is that of achievement motivation. Achievement motivation says learners strive to be competent in the activities in which they are putting in effort. Specifically, we’re going to focus on two theories of achievement motivation: expectancy-value theory and self-worth theory. Both of these theories discuss how our behavior, and ultimately our motivation to learn, is impacted by our hope for success and fear of failure. Taking this one step further, self-worth theory says we also try to preserve our sense of self-worth and we do this by both feeling able and showing our ability to others.

Finally, there are theories that discuss how social comparison, or comparing ourselves to others, impacts our level of motivation. We can think of social comparison in relation to how we learn, how we act in classrooms, or even the goals we set for ourselves.

What does all of this have to do with my mental health? Try to remember the last time you experienced a panic attack, or felt really anxious throughout the day. Think about the last time your child was really depressed and had a hard time eating a meal. Consider when your friend shared they experienced a traumatic experience that left them feeling really on edge.

Now, remember Maslow’s hierarchy? It is really hard to take care of your basic needs, such as eating and sleeping, when you’re depressed or trying to cope with five panic attacks a day. Even if these basic needs are being met, some people may not even feel safe -- safe from others, in their body, with themselves, or in their environment as a result of traumatic experiences. Others may feel so disconnected from others, or may actually be disconnected from others (such as with this global pandemic) that it is nearly impossible to feel like they belong. According to Maslow, of course you aren’t going to feel motivated to learn whatever it is you’re trying to learn. It is extremely hard to get through the day, let alone engage in meaningful learning, when eating feels like a chore, or you’re constantly thinking about how others are judging you, or you don’t feel safe in your physical body. Those lower level needs, like food and water, shelter, and sleep, safety, and belongingness must be attended to before effective learning takes place. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn if some of these needs aren’t being met, but it sure will make it challenging and it probably won’t be as fun.

Let’s consider how motivation and learning might be impacted even if all these lower level needs are being met. In the context of learning, we all have some sort of hope for success and a fear of failure. In an ideal world, we would all have high hopes for success and a near existent fear of failure but this isn’t the case, especially for someone struggling with anxiety and depression. Our mental health can greatly influence how hopeful we are about our successes in the future -- this is true of our hope for friendships, romantic relationships, hobbies, and even academics. Someone who recently failed a test, broke up with a partner, lost a loved one, or is struggling with their sexuality may not have high hopes for success on a project their working on, or an upcoming paper or test, or even in their ability to learn about subject because there are other things going on that are just really hard to deal with right now.

If our needs aren’t being met, it could be really difficult to feel motivated to go to school, complete assignments, or even talk to teachers and peers. Even if all your needs are being met, there are a lot of ways your mental health affects your motivation to learn. Would you say you’re generally hopeful that you’ll be successful when learning? How do you view and feel about failure? This could get a little complicated so we’ll just talk a little bit about fear of failure, perfectionism, and social comparison. Perfectionism is often linked to anxiety and depression. There is a healthy balance of perfectionism that leads to high achievement and academic success; however, those who are perfectionists can also be incredibly anxious. If you’re setting high standards for yourself, what happens if you fail? Will you set lower standards for yourself, or will you be even more fearful of failure in the future? If your fear of failure is high, then it is likely your motivation to learn may decrease or you may still feel motivated but your mental health takes a serious hit. Perfectionists in particular tend to be incredibly stressed following what is seen as a failure.

There is also a term in learning called “flow”. When you find your flow, time flys, you feel like you're in control, you are able to concentrate, and you enjoy learning. The opposite of flow is feeling “stuck”, which is also what depression may feel like too. When you’re feeling “stuck”, you may not be able to concentrate, enjoy learning, or may feel like things are out of control. When you’re feeling stuck, it’s going to be really hard to want to learn, complete homework, or feel like you’re even capable of doing well in school. Imagine how challenging it is to feel motivated to learn when you feel stuck and there does not seem to be any hope for success.

One last thing for you, for your friends, for your children to think about: the people around us can increase or decrease our motivation and our mental health can impact how we relate to others. When we’re struggling, we may compare ourselves to people we’re learning with and feel discouraged or those people can also inspire us. If we are incredibly anxious in classroom settings and have a hard time talking to peers, we might not feel motivated to even show up to class. If we’re depressed we might be really hard on ourselves if we see someone else achieving higher grades than we are.

This does not mean that you cannot learn if you’re depressed, or experienced a recent trauma. If you lost a loved one or your parents got divorced, you can still do well, succeed, grow, and learn. In the upcoming posts, we’ll look at how social media can also impact learning and motivation and we’ll go over some strategies that may help you feel more motivated to learn.


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