Pleasure Pain Principle – What Drives Us?

We, humans, are incredibly complex beings; a swirling vortex of biology, chemistry, physiology, and emotion.  But the irony is that we’re also very simple – certainly when it comes to what drives us and motivates us to do the things we do (or don’t do).

Can’t find the motivation to finally paint the spare room? Perhaps you have a garage full of random things that you’ve been meaning to sort through and donate to goodwill?  Maybe making an important phone call can’t seem to find its place in your awkward schedule?

We’ve all got a list of things that need to get done in order for us to benefit and progress in a productive way.  These are the tasks that we know should be accomplished but we never seem to get around to doing so.

Yet, when a task comes along that we want to do there appears to be no distraction, and finding motivation is certainly not an issue. In fact, we will pull out all stops and muster all the energy and enthusiasm we can to get it done pronto!

If you need to organize and upload the pictures from your vacation to send to your friends, make it to the bank to deposit the cheque before the weekend, or simply check your e-mail messages –  you certainly won’t put it off for one minute longer than you need to.

But what drives us? What is our motivation?

The system responsible for our motivation and what drives us to do what we do can be broken down into two leading roles and classified as the pleasure-pain principle.

This pleasure-pain principle can be described as simply as: we will avoid any experience that causes us pain and embrace any experience that leads to pleasure – and that actually makes a lot of sense.

Pleasure Pain Principle Chart

Pain – aka Avoidance Motivation

Think about something you haven’t been able to bring yourself to do. Let’s take an essay that is due a month from now. We’ve all been there, right?

You may have a good 30 or so days to complete it. At the start of the month that 30 days seems like plenty of time to get it done.  Yet, you and I both know that you’ll leave it until it becomes a MUST. Until things become so dire that you’re actually at risk of failing your course or subject or missing the deadline, and at this point, the consequences seem very bad.

In other words, you’ll enjoy yourself for 25+ days doing whatever you prefer to do and doing what brings you less pain than starting that dastardly essay until a time comes where the pain of not doing it at all outweighs the discomfort of doing it – at which point, you’ll start researching and writing madly.

The greater pull, at least initially, is to avoid doing the essay because it all seems so complicated and difficult to start and painful. However, the minute your brain realizes you’re coming perilously close to failing, your motivation suddenly changes.

Suddenly, your desire to avoid the discomfort of failing is a whole lot stronger than your desire to surf Facebook or go out on the town with friends.

Pleasure – aka Approach Motivation

So, how exactly are you avoiding the ‘pain’ of writing the essay? You’re waist-deep in pleasure – you’ve got your favorite chocolate cake, that new reality show is coming on in 10 minutes and you’re deeply engaged in an interesting text message conversation. Life is great!

Of course, occasionally taking out the garbage or tidying up maybe a little less inspiring, but these tasks are far more pleasurable than writing the essay.

By realizing such a duality exists within most of us, and understanding how powerful it can be, we’re suddenly empowered with the knowledge that we can change this behavior and potentially change our lives – for the better.

After all, it’s good to know that we’re not just naturally lazy or professional procrastinators. There is a neurological reason for what we do (or don’t do), and it’s something that greatly affects our ability to achieve our goals and what drives us to attain our desires, but it doesn’t have to.

With the exception of the most disciplined among us, most humans are driven almost entirely by the conflicting ‘pull’ of Pleasure (Approach Motivation) and Pain (Avoidance Motivation), and what is painful and what is pleasurable can change from minute to minute.

Resolving the conflict of the pleasure-pain principle takes great mental strength and focus because it, quite literally, involves us changing the way we instinctively think and act: avoid the painful experience by partaking in a more pleasurable one.

The first step in building this focus is becoming aware of what you are doing and that the conflicting motivations even exist. Then, ask yourself what overall outcome you desire. What is the outcome that is most beneficial to you, and which of the conflicting actions and choices will help you reach this goal?

The answer to the pleasure-pain principle seems obvious: stop avoiding and start approaching. However, since these desires change from minute to minute, the answer isn’t always as simple – or as easy – as that. But, by answering this question, you will find that you are no longer immobilized.

You can suddenly take positive, considered, and definitive action towards your desired outcome rather than simply allowing your biology and subconscious to take over and dictate your behavior by default. If you can manage to break free of these conflicting behaviors, you have no idea of the power you’ll have over your own life when you can control how you react to circumstances, whether you like them or not.

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Kelly Stiles

I love publishing topics on meditation and mindset development. While providing you with the tools and resources to live vibrantly and consciously, Mind Body Vortex is your modern guide to an exhilarating lifestyle of personal growth.


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