How Pleasure and Pain Act as Motivators
“Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.”
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön shares this thought that flies in the face of common wisdom in her book entitled Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion.
We are taught from an early age that if we do the “right thing,” we will receive what we desire, and if we do the “wrong thing” there will be literal and symbolic hell to pay. This method is used to train children to “be good, or else.”
While there are consequences for all actions, punishment is seen as primarily negative, with the intention of encouraging remorse, while personal accountability for choices made encourages amends with the idea that the original behavior caused harm in some form or fashion to oneself or others. When we make amends, we are doing more than saying we are sorry, instead we are learning ways not to repeat our actions and compensate for the outcome. The analogy I like to use is that if you step on someone’s toes, saying the words “I’m sorry” won’t make the pain or injury go away. Instead, offering help or ice or a chair is intervening positively. The person may feel cared about and the toe-stepper may feel relieved that they do something to compensate, thus falling into the pleasure paradigm.
This mindset leads to the pain/pleasure dichotomy. Most people are motivated by wanting to avoid pain or encourage pleasure. Which is more powerful? The way the human brain operates, we are geared toward taking steps in the direction of what we want and attempt to distance ourselves from what we don’t want, but the paradox is that is we focus on what we don’t want, we get more of same.
Recently I was helping a friend brainstorm ideas for a group she was leading for mental health consumers in a day treatment program. She had an exercise in mind and wanted me to elaborate on it. She was going to ask each person to write down what pain they wanted to avoid and what pleasure they wanted to invite and then put the pieces of paper in a bag. Each person would then reach in and pick one, not knowing whose they chose.
I then suggested that they see how it might relate to their own lives even if the exact experience wasn’t the same. One example might be that someone’s pain and pleasure could be the same if it was a substance they used to self-medicate. Someone who chose that paper might feel in alignment if they had a person in their life who they loved, but with whom they had a dysfunctional relationship. Another could be two opposite ends of the spectrum with enjoying massage and also engaging in self harm. All of those pain related options could be termed addiction.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, an addiction is defined as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”