Like most animals, humans are motivated through the brain's dopamine system. When we experience something that makes us feel good -- generally through the release of endorphins, the brain associates the activity that generated the pleasure with that pleasure, and through the use of dopamine, motivates us to engage in that activity in order to experience the pleasure again. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that causes us to "want" things and endorphins are the neurotransmitters that cause us to "like" things -- motivation and pleasure, respectively.
Scientists discovered the function of dopamine and endorphins through experiments with rats. They disabled the dopamine system in rats and observed their eating behavior. When force fed, the rats still liked the food, but without dopamine, they had no motivation to seek out food -- even if it was only a few inches away. Without the "want" system, they, and most animals, would starve to death, even if food was readily available. On the other hand, when scientists disabled the endorphin system, the rats received no pleasure from eating, and therefore, had no motivation to eat. So without the "want" and "like" systems, most animals would starve to death.
We humans experience pleasure from a variety of activities. Many people experience pleasure from exercise. Those of us who don't get that endorphin surge from physical exertions lack motivation to get to the gym; we need to force ourselves. But we can substitute pleasure from other activities such as listening to music or watching videos while exercising. I enjoy watching psychology and neuroscience video lectures but experience a sense of guilt if I just sit on the couch to watch them. I feel like a couch potato. Recently, I started watching the lectures while riding a stationary bike in my basement gym. From combining the two activities, I now have the motivation to exercise. Well, it's really a motivation to watch the videos, but exercise eliminates the guilt.
Most people experience pleasure from being around others and by forming close, personal connections. Anxiety acts as a barrier to personal connections, and people who suffer from social anxiety don't experience pleasure from being around people. We all have an inherent need for companionship, though. It's something that aided humans in survival as a species. The absence of friends and family creates more anxiety, which makes it even more difficult to connect with others. It's a vicious cycle.
Some people turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their anxiety and allow them to socialize more easily. Others become depressed. Still others benefit from medications such as paroxetine (generic for Paxil) or other SSRIs. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an effective form of therapy for mild cases, but severe cases are usually rooted in low self-esteem, in which case, only the elevation of self-esteem can reduce the anxiety experienced in social situations.
People with SAD typically have experienced an overabundance of pain from rejection. Emotional pain activates exactly the same parts of the brain as physical pain, and few of us are motivated to experience pain of any type. People who suffer from SAD become more driven by a desire to avoid pain than to experience joy because all too often, the joy is elusive. So they sit at home and watch TV, surf the internet, play video games, or engage in other impersonal activities. They crave companionship and experience the pain of loneliness.
One remedy is to combine activities. If you suffer from social anxiety, you're probably not motivated to go out and socialize, but are there other activities you enjoy? Take a hobbies such as playing sports or music and use that motivation and pleasure to help you socialize. When you're around others who share the same hobbies, they're likely to appreciate having you around -- especially if you're passionate about the activity. People are attracted to those with a passion for life and repelled by negativity. Pursue your passions. Live an authentic life, and the rest will follow.
David Benjamin Pollack is a psychology and neuroscience journalist. He studied mental health counseling at Adams State University and is an avid blogger. He runs workshops on various topics such as self-esteem, stress management, and happiness.