An Exploration of the Pain and Pleasure Principle

The pain-pleasure principle lies at the core of everything you do, and of everything you are. Your beliefs, values and psychological rules are all built upon this principle. The decisions you make, the actions you take, and the habits you indulge in, are all based upon this principle. In fact, every part of your psyche is influenced in some way by the pain-pleasure principle. You are therefore who you are today because of how you have interpreted and acted upon the experience of pain and pleasure in your life. And as we all know action always begins with a decision.

Before every decision you make, you unconsciously ask yourself the following set of questions:

What does this mean?

Will it lead to pain or pleasure?

What should I do about it?

The decision you choose to make will depend on how you interpret pain and pleasure in your life. And how you interpret pain and pleasure depends on your past experience of pain and pleasure.

Digging into Your Past

Over the years you have had a variety of personal experiences that have touched your life. Some of these experiences have been painful and have consequently led to the emotions of anger, hurt, stress, anxiety, overwhelm, frustration, depression, etc. Other experiences have been pleasurable and have consequently led to the emotions of happiness, joy, enthusiasm, curiosity, love, gratitude, excitement, etc.

All of the emotional experiences you have had are neither good nor bad; they are neither hurtful nor helpful. They are what they are as a result of how you interpreted these experiences at the time. Therefore your experiences of pain and pleasure are nothing more than personal interpretations based on your perspectives at the time.

Because your experiences are based on the interpretations you have made, it’s therefore safe to say that different people will have different interpretations of the same experience. As such, what you interpret as a painful experience, another person might interpret as a pleasurable experience. In other words, you might experience a situation that makes you feel angry, which leads to pain. At the same time, another person will have the same experience, however instead of feeling angry, they choose to feel curious. Both of you had the same experience, however your interpretations of that experience was different, and you therefore experience a very different emotion.

How you — or any other person — interpret each experience is based on the underlying parts of your psyche. These parts include your beliefs, values, self-concept, psychological rules, meta-programs, human needs, etc. All these parts of your psyche have been shaped over a lifetime as a result of the experiences/references you have collected over time.

The references you have collected come through your five senses. You have therefore interpreted your world through the use of your five sensory organs of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. These sensory organs are the windows to the world around you. They allow you to experience both the pleasures and the pains that life has to offer.

Over the years you have learned to interpret things in a certain way through your five sensory organs via the experiences you have had. You have for instance learned what works and what doesn’t work; what hurts and what doesn’t hurt; what’s bad and what’s good; what’s right and what’s wrong through the process of trial and error. However, you don’t only learn these things through your own experience, you also learn through the experience of others — through observing other people and the world around you. This is especially relevant when you’re a child who looks up to others for guidance and direction. It’s during these times in particular that certain beliefs, habits and perspectives are set in stone and continue to factor into every decision you make for the rest of your life.

All of these experiences you have had come in the form of references. When similar references are collected about certain things, that is when opinions start to form. Then as more and more references are collected about something over time, that is when beliefs start to take shape. And as beliefs start taking shape, they begin to guide every decision you make and action you take. Furthermore, these beliefs influence your values, self-concept, meta-programs, psychological rules, and other parts of your psyche. Likewise, all of these “parts” shape your beliefs. Therefore your psyche isn’t a straight line, it is rather a circle, or in other words: All of these parts are part of a cycle where one part influences all other parts on a continuous basis throughout your life.

These references you collect come in the form of pain and pleasure experiences. Some of them will be taken from the real world, while others will be created in your imagination. It doesn’t really matter where they are taken from. All that matters is that the reference has been made and added into the mix of other references you have collected about related things.

Some of your references will of course be pleasurable and will bring forth positive and empowering emotions that make you feel good, while other references will be painful and will stir-up negative emotions that will feel absolutely awful. As a result of these emotional experiences, you subsequently learn more about what brings you pain and what brings you pleasure. And these are the factors that influence every decision you make throughout the day.

Influencing Every Decision You Make

It’s human nature to gravitate towards pleasure and to seek to avoid pain. In other words, you will make most of your decisions based on acquiring pleasure while at the same time trying to avoiding pain. This works well at times, however at other times it will actually work against the goals and objectives you are trying to achieve. But more about that shortly. Let’s first look at the decision-making process.

Every decision you make will lead to one or more of the following consequences:

  1. Short-term pain.
  2. Short-term pleasure.
  3. Long-term pain.
  4. Long-term pleasure.

In addition to this, there will be varying degrees of intensity of pain and pleasure ranging from low to high. The higher the intensity of pain or pleasure the more of an influence it will have on the decision you are about to make. On the other hand, the lower the intensity of the pain and pleasure the less of an impact it will have on your decision-making process.

You might for instance have a goal that you would like to achieve. However, in order to achieve this goal you will need to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable — something that leads to the experience of pain. You think about the decision for a moment and weigh up the consequences of taking and of not taking action. On the one hand you have this wonderful goal that will bring you a great deal of pleasure. However, in order to experience this pleasure you must achieve this goal, and achieving this goal will require doing something that will bring you a great deal of pain. You therefore have a dilemma on your hands. You want to experience the pleasure of having this goal in your life, but you don’t want to go through the pain of achieving this goal. What do you do?

In this particular instance let’s say that you decide to forgo your goal for the time being. You make this decision based on the intensity of the pain that you are likely to experience while pursuing this goal. You are simply not willing to go through the pain in order to attain your goal. Therefore, the pain of undertaking a specific task required to achieve this goal is far stronger than the pleasure you would experience by achieving your goal. As a result you fall into the procrastination trap and put off doing this task for another day. In other words, the experience of short-term pain (doing the task) was a far more influential factor in this decision than was the pursuit of long-term pleasure (achieving your goal).

In the same scenario there’s also a chance that you might fall into the instant gratification trap. This is where short-term pleasure has more influence on your decision-making process than long-term pleasure or short-term pain. In such instances you will choose to indulge in something pleasurable in the short-term in order to avoid short-term pain. Alternatively you might choose short-term pleasure because the experience of long-term pleasure just isn’t motivating enough to influence your decision-making process.

As an example, you might for instance be on a 30 day diet plan. However, after day 10 you just can’t resist the urge of the temptations hiding in your pantry, and you decide to indulge yourself by scoffing down a packet of chips. In this scenario you chose short-term pleasure because the pain of going through another 20 days of this diet was just too unbearable.

Remember that these decisions you’re making are nothing more than conditioned responses that have been learned over the course of your life and are now deeply ingrained into your psyche — manifesting in the form of your beliefs, values, psychological rules, etc. These are the parts of you that are influencing the daily choices and decisions you make, however these parts have been conditioned into your psyche as a result of how you have interpreted and responded to pain and pleasure in your life.

Your decisions are however not as straightforward as they might seem. It’s not just about short and long-term pleasure or pain. It’s more about the degrees of this pain and pleasure and how this factors into your decision-making process.

Let’s take a look at an example.

You might for instance want to achieve a desired weight-loss goal. Achieving this goal will bring you long-term pleasure because you will look better, feel better, and have more energy. However, getting to this point along your weight-loss journey will not be easy and you will need to go through a lot of short-term pain. However, if the long-term pleasure provides you with enough motivation, then you will likely get through those difficult moments of short-term pain. But your journey is never smooth, and short-term temptations in the form of sweets and chocolates constantly pop up. These temptations bring you short-term pleasure, and as a result you now have a dilemma. It’s no longer about short-term pain vs. long-term pleasure. It’s rather about short-term pain vs. long-term pleasure vs. short-term pleasure. Now the game has changed, and your decision-making process has become somewhat more complicated.

In such a scenario, succumbing to short-term pleasure (temptations) means that you could experience long-term pain because you will not achieve your weight-loss goal. To avoid short-term pleasure you will need to go through short-term pain in order to get to the long-term pleasure of achieving your weight-loss goal. This means that you have to have enough motivation behind the long-term pleasure (your goal) to help you avoid the short-term pleasure (temptations). You also need enough motivation in order to work through the short-term pain that you will need to go through along your journey towards that goal.

Finding Your Motivation

Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you make these pleasure-pain decisions every single day without even realizing it. They are a part of you, they are a part of your life, and they are a part of your decision-making process.

The pain-pleasure principle creates the foundations of your motivation. Understanding this principle means that you will successfully be able to adjust your levels of motivation at will as you work towards the attainment of your goals and objectives.

When it comes to finding peak levels of motivation, it all comes down to how much pain and pleasure you associate to achieving and to not achieving your goal. Therefore if you seek high levels of motivation, then you will need to associate as much short and long-term pleasure as possible to achieving your goal, and as much short and long-term pain towards not achieving your goal. You will of course probably need to go through periods of short-term pain along your journey towards that goal, however this short-term pain should not deter you from your journey if there is enough long-term pleasure associated with achieving your goal, and enough long-term pain associated with not achieving your goal. And this is exactly the process we will work through when we explore the pain-pleasure creation process within the next section.


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