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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.”

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We further explored the idea that one person’s pleasure could feel shameful or indulgent to someone else, especially if it fell in the sexual realm. One finger wagging, cautionary line I have heard is “Don’t yuck my yum.” What that means is disapproval of another person’s sexual proclivity, relationship style or activity.

I suggested that they also speak of what they were taught about pain and pleasure. The “no pain/no gain” strategy may cause physical and emotional injury. In an article published in the Berkeley Science Review, entitled No Pain, No Gain: The Psychology of Self Punishment, the author Juliana Brenes states that the belief in the value of suffering is what keeps people immersed in the pain part of the equation. If we are convinced that we deserve to suffer, we are more likely to attract painful situations, sometimes deliberately.

How many times has a child touched a hot stove even after getting burned the first time? How often do intelligent adults attract the same type of unhealthy partner following a series of abusive relationships? Knowing better doesn’t always equate to doing better.

Perhaps they were taught that it was selfish to want pleasure when so many other people in the world were deprived of it. Being labeled hedonistic could make someone pleasure averse or avoidant. The term “guilty pleasure” may refer to something deemed a decadent indulgence, like eating junk food or binge-watching Netflix shows. I didn’t experience a pedicure until I was 45 years old since I viewed it in that light. Now I see it, along with a monthly therapeutic massage as part of my essential health care.

Consider the goal of health improvement. Some people are focused on the sacrifices of working out or depriving themselves of food they love in an effort to avoid illness. Perhaps it would be more effective to enjoy the experience of sweating it out at the gym or hiking in the woods, rather than groaning about it. Recently in conversation with someone who started running to lose weight, she said she complained about it in her head all throughout the experience. I encouraged her to find a way to like it, since she was giving her body mixed messages.

When I am at the gym, I use mantras and affirming statements to up the amps on the workout. When I am walking, as I was this morning in a local lakeside park, I paid attention to the additional pleasure of conversing with my friend who strolled alongside me, noticing the natural beauty along the trail. It made the huffing and puffing I did a whole lot more enjoyable and I wasn’t as stiff and sore as I might otherwise have been.

One thing to know for certain is that both pleasure and pain are fleeting. All is impermanent.

How Pleasure and Pain Act as Motivators

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Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2019). How Pleasure and Pain Act as Motivators. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Apr 2019 (Originally: 17 Apr 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Apr 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.