But scientists from Emory University now say that chronic inflammation is a huge troublemaker, and that it might interfere with your drive to persist and explore. According to their new theory, detailed in the paper Can't or Won't? Immunometabolic Constraints on Dopaminergic Drive, chronic inflammation puts a squeeze on your brain's dopamine supply. You probably know dopamine best for its role in helping you feel happy, but it's a chemical that keeps your brain seeking novelty, too.
Why inflammation deflates your desire to discover and do
The authors--Michael Treadway, Andrew Miller, and Jessica Cooper--say the problem between inflammation and motivation is actually a sophisticated protective mechanism that forces you to cool it.
"When your body is fighting an infection or healing a wound," Treadway said in a recent statement, "your brain needs a mechanism to recalibrate your motivation to do other things so you don't use up too much of your energy. We now have strong evidence suggesting that the immune system disrupts the dopamine system to help the brain perform this recalibration."
Miller says that, if the theory is right, there's a good opportunity for new therapies related to depression and other behaviors driven by inflammation.
But interpreting the study broadly for the workplace, let's remember that both physical and mental stress trigger the inflammation response in the body. So if you're overworked and overwhelmed, the risk of your having inflammation issues is higher. This might explain, at least in part, why motivation often seems to tank as responsibilities climb, and why some leaders who seem to be on a fast track suddenly lose their spark and stop going after new opportunities.
And there's another critical element that Christopher Bergland points out in his article about the study for Psychology Today. Additional research led by Jeffrey Gassen suggests that inflammation also can interfere with your ability to make good decisions for the long term. As inflammation gets worse, you might become more impulsive in your choices. That's because when your body encounters a threat, the biggest concern becomes how to address what you need in the immediate present, not what's weeks, months, or years down the road.
Ultimately, the lesson underneath all this might be that, if you feel your mojo dying, you shouldn't necessarily get scared that you've taken a horribly wrong turn somewhere in your past. Your passion probably isn't dead, especially if you've got aches, pains, or other ailments on top of the low motivation. It might just be that you didn't allow yourself the necessary stress protections, and that you need to build some of them into your routine and recover before you continue. If you do that, the fire probably will come back, and you'll make better decisions for the long haul to boot.