The Pain-Pleasure Principle: How to Change What Motivates Us

banner image that says what motivates us

Before I talk about purpose and meaning any further, we need to understand a core principle of our psychology.

What motivates us?

What if I told you that everything you do is for one of two reasons:

  • To seek after pleasure, or
  • To avoid pain

Does that seem overly simplistic? Well it turns out, it’s true. Literally everything you and I do throughout our day-to-day lives is governed by these two opposing forces.

But how we respond to these forces, and the relationship that we build with them, can vary dramatically from one person to another.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What the pain-pleasure principle is
  • How it works
  • Examples of the pain-pleasure principle
  • How to harness the power of the pain-pleasure principle

What is the Pain Pleasure Principle?

The pain-pleasure principle (sometimes called the pleasure-pain principle, or simply the pleasure principle) is a concept that was initially identified by Sigmund Freud. And while Freud was not right about a lot of things, he was on to something here.

The pain-pleasure principle is the idea that we either seek for pleasure or avoid pain in order to achieve our needs, whether they be biological or psychological. It is the guiding force of the id, as outlined by Sigmund Freud.

Freud argued strongly in favor of this principle, telling us that “what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle”. And while I would argue that our purpose in life is something a little higher than our baser instincts, I can’t argue with the fact that pain and pleasure are still what motivate us to pursue that purpose.

So what kind of pain or pleasure are we talking about here?

Pain could refer to the following:

  • Physical pain
  • Mental pain
  • Emotional pain
  • Physical exertion
  • Anxiety
  • Facing a challenge
  • The loss of money
  • The loss of time
  • The loss of social standing
  • Being pushed outside of our comfort zone

Some forms of pleasure could include the following:

  • Gaining wealth
  • Gaining time
  • Gaining strength or skill
  • Feeling satisfaction
  • Experiencing comfort
  • Making progress
  • Physical pleasure
  • Increased social standing

While the different forms of pain and pleasure are certainly more diverse than this list, it can give you a sense of all of the different ways that we feel motivated.

In fact, chances are when you read this list and imagine yourself in these situations, you either felt pain or experienced pleasure just thinking about it. I know I did while writing about it.

How the Pain-Pleasure Principle Works

Pain and pleasure are at the heart of our instincts. They are a huge part of what Freud called the id, our unconscious self, that part of our self that is there from the very beginning. It is part of our basic urges and desires, of course, but it also plays a part in our higher functioning behaviors.

Freud noticed that young children tended to satisfy these biological needs as quickly as possible, leaning towards instant gratification over delayed gratification. As human beings, we tend to secretly want instant gratification only all the time, but we don’t always act that way. Why?

Sigmund Freud hypothesized that with the development of the ego, we were able to keep our id in check.

But as other psychologists have pointed out, when we delay immediate gratification in favor of something else, we are simply substituting one form of pain or pleasure for another that is even more important to us. It is only with time, training, and effort that we learn what these things are.

Every Decision You Make Uses the Pain/Pleasure Principle

It’s in our nature to seek after pleasure or to avoid pain. This is true all of the time, whether we know it or not.

So you may be wondering, how can someone willingly do something painful, such as go to the gym, or in a darker scenario, stay with an abusive spouse?

Because in these instances, there is a different form of pleasure or pain that supersedes the first form of pain. The person who goes to the gym does so knowing that the gains will be worth the pain, and that brings more pleasure to that person than the pain of going to the gym. In the darker scenario, the pain of staying with an abusive spouse, at least for that person in that moment, feels like less pain than the pain of leaving.

Because there’s one more important factor that plays a role in the pain-pleasure principle: time.

As I’ve already mentioned, we tend to prefer instant gratification. We often look for short-term pleasures even when we know they lead to long-term pain. Likewise, short-term pain can often deter us from doing things that bring long-term pleasure.

That is why our decisions are not as cut and dry as we might think. Because our minds are constantly processing the short-term and long-term and making decisions based on which one is more important.

In almost every instance, we want to focus on the long-term gains, the things that will bring us pleasure long-term or the things that will avoid pain long-term. These behaviors or practices tend to be much better for us.

Examples of the Pain-Pleasure Principle

Let’s take a look at an example. To continue with the gym analogy, let’s say you want to put on 10 pounds of muscle and win a strength contest.

Let’s analyze the pleasures here. If you achieve this goal, you will feel good about your progress and achievements. You will appreciate an increase in social standing, and your body will feel better overall.

Simple, right? With all of those pleasures, it should be easy to do what is necessary to achieve that goal.

Not so much.

All of these are long-term gains, and they are confronted with immediate pain such as feelings of inadequacy at the gym, literal physical pain in the muscles, a loss of time spent working out, etc. These are short-term pains, and they can be very powerful de-motivators.

So what do you do? You simply have to prioritize the long-term gains over the short-term pain.

Now, I realize that this is much easier said then done. As someone who has struggled to go to the gym for years, I understand that it’s not that simple. I’m not trying to shame anyone who has ever given into their short-term pain or pleasure at the expense of their long-term goals.

Instead, I want to make you aware that this happens. Because awareness is the first step towards intentional change.

Other Important Facts about the Pain/Pleasure Principle

As we go about studying this principle, it’s worth noting a few additional key points that should inform our approach.

1. The instinct to avoid pain is stronger than the instinct to gain pleasure

Pain and pleasure are both motivating, but if it came to a head, pain would win out every time. We hate pain. We are hardwired to do this so that our ancestors could drop everything that they are doing and run from the charging lion. If we were holding a bag full of a million dollars, we would drop it to escape a charging lion, and I challenge you to tell me otherwise.

2. It’s important to train your perception

As I’ve mentioned before, we need to learn to prioritize the long-term over the short term. Understanding when you are giving in to the wrong side is key to finding a good balance.

3. The short-term always feels more compelling than the long-term

The closer something is to us in time, the more clear the pain or pleasure is that we associate with it. Pleasure that we could get in a month or a year will always feel less enticing than the pleasure we could have today.

We may consciously know that that bowl of ice cream isn’t good for us in the long term, but oh man does it taste good! Believe me, I have had my share of guilty ice cream binges. And I always knew it was bad for me, so why did I do it? The answer, I prioritized the short-term pleasure over the long-term pain.

4. Emotions will always beat logic

We are beings of emotion and no amount of logic or analytical thinking will ever have the same effect that we can achieve through the heart.

This is true of both positive and negative change.

When you can learn to associate a positive or negative emotion with a certain behavior, you are more likely to move toward or push away from that behavior. This is a key principle that I will outline later.

5. When you’re in survival mode, nothing else matters

Let’s go back to the parable of the charging lion. If that lion is coming for you, you will drop everything you have, every pleasure you may have been indulging in, in order to get away from the pain of being eaten to death.

Survival mode is the ultimate trump card. It will override everything, and with good reason. We were designed to survive at all costs. Most of the time, this is a good thing, but it can be a bad thing in situations where our body goes into fight or flight mode, even when our life is not directly in danger. This happens more often than you think in modern situations, especially with modern technology.

The Reality Principle

Sigmund Freud also penned the idea of the reality principle, which is an antidote to the pain-pleasure principle.

In it, he argued that the ego developed to control the baser instincts of the id. We learned that certain behaviors that bring a short-term pleasure or avoid short-term pain are not socially appropriate. And so we are able to change our behaviors based on this new set of data: that the pain of being socially unacceptable is worse than not engaging in those behaviors.

While this is simply a more complex understanding of long and short term gains, the principal stands. In order to focus on the long-term, we have to associate more pain or pleasure with the long-term results than we do with the short-term results.

Sigmund Freud was onto something here, but it has been largely expanded in recent decades.

Learning to Link Pain and Pleasure to the Right Things

Tony Robbins is quoted as saying “we can learn to condition our minds, bodies, and emotions to link pain or pleasure to whatever we choose. By changing what we link pain and pleasure to, we will instantly change our behaviors.”

To close out this article I would like to outline six steps that you can take to begin associating pain and pleasure with the right things.

Step 1: Make a List

Start by outlining 2-3 behaviors that you need to change in life. This could be losing weight, quitting a bad habit, conquering an addiction, or spending more time with a loved one.

Write those things down and move on to the next step.

Step 2: Ask Yourself Why You Have Not Taken Action in the Past

Under each of those things that you listed above, ask yourself why you haven’t done them yet. What pain are you avoiding?

It’s important that you answer this section honestly, because something is holding you back, even if you don’t know what it is yet. If that weren’t the case you would have done it already.

Step 3: Identify the Pleasures of Not Changing

Let’s face it, sometimes the behaviors we need to change are the most fun.

For this section, outline all of the different ways that your list of behaviors might be pleasurable. Perhaps you like a certain behavior on a fundamental level, or perhaps it brings you physical pleasure. There is a good chance that there is some form of dopamine flooding your system in the behaviors that you are trying to stop.

Figure out what those are and write them down.

Step 4: Identify the Cost

For every negative human behavior, or lack of a good behavior, there is a cost. Figure out what that cost is.

What happens if you continue to eat unhealthily? What happens if you continue to indulge in that bad habit?

Then identify how those things will make you feel. Remember that emotions are the driving factor here. You have to associate a strong negative emotion with the negative outcomes of not changing your behavior.

Step 5: Identify the Long-Term Pleasures

Just as you need to identify the cost of not changing your behavior, you should identify the long-term pleasures of being successful.

How will that make you feel?

Write down all of these long-term pleasures and really think about them. Try to feel the emotions associated with these pleasures, and contrast that with the cost of continuing on in your current path.

Step 6: Review This Model Frequently

Once you have an idea of all of the pains and pleasures associated with certain behaviors, as well as the pains and pleasures of changing those behaviors, you might have a new perspective on the subject.

However, this long-term perspective can easily fade. That’s why it’s important to review all of these things that we have talked about frequently. Ideally you should review them on a daily basis, though it can depend on the severity of the behavior.

So What Does This Have To Do with Purpose?

Purpose is the ultimate long-term gain. It is the ultimate pleasure that we are seeking, and it is the ultimate suppressor of true long-term pain.

When in the pursuit of our purpose, even when going through very painful times, a solid purpose can override all of that. This is why those who have a clear sense of purpose are better able to tolerate pain as I mentioned in another article.

You’ve got to learn to endure short-term pain for long-term pleasure and not the other way around, and purpose is one of the best ways to do this.