As I looked at my dog waiting for me to throw a stone down the hill, I was reminded of the pain and pleasure principle I once heard Tony Robbins talking about.
I used to throw the stone and watch with pleasure as he chased it down the hill, barking until he finally caught up with it and started grinding it between his teeth. However, I no longer throw stones for him.
The vet told me he was in danger of cracking one of his teeth, which would mean costly treatment and a lot of pain.
The pain of having to pay out for vet treatment now outweighs the pleasure I get from watching him, and the pain he would feel from a fractured tooth now outweighs the pleasure he is getting from those chases.
As Tony Robbins explains, we have two driving forces — to avoid pain and to gain pleasure. And the stronger pull is that of short-term wins over long-term wins.
“People will do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure.” Tony Robbins.
As an mBIT coach, I wanted to investigate this principle to work out why we continue to do things we shouldn’t and why we can struggle to do something we really must to achieve what we want.
Why do we do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure?
When we are experiencing pain or if we believe that pain is a threat, we go into survival mode. Our gut controls this fight, flight, freeze reaction. Our gut also controls our mobility, which facilitates our motivated action.
When we are in this aroused state of fear, logical thought and heart-felt desires are turned off because we need all our energy to survive this threat of pain.
Our action is therefore geared towards avoiding pain; pursuing pleasure is not important at this time.
This applies to all levels of pain, not just serious threats of danger.
Let’s apply this to some common issues and turn things around so that this pain and pleasure principle works to your advantage.
I want to lose weight but can’t stop eating junk food.
You know you need to make some changes, but you can’t motivate yourself to choose healthy foods and improve your diet.
The long-term win of feeling lighter, fitter and healthier is overlooked to avoid the short-term pain of going without your favourite unhealthy foods and alcohol.
You choose to receive pleasure right now, in the form of your favourite takeaway, sugary snack or bottle of wine, instead of a few months later when you would feel much better because of refraining from these things.
Change this around :
- How uncomfortable does it feel when you can’t do up your clothes properly?
- How will you feel if you get diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure?
- How lazy do you feel after indulging in a large takeaway?
Make the pain of continuing to eat rubbish lead you to take action towards improving your diet.
Once you start losing weight, you will find that the thought of undoing your hard work becomes more and more painful, helping you to stick to your healthy food choices.
Find some short-term pleasure by finding healthy alternatives that you enjoy. My healthy treats include avocados, tropical fruits, and nuts. I love a big plate of food, so a big salad with tuna, eggs, and olives, sprinkled with some seeds, excites me!
As you fill your diet with healthy food that gives you more energy and helps you to lose weight, it will become painful to indulge in something unhealthy that will make you feel sluggish or give you a bellyache a short while later.
I want to get fitter but can’t find the time or inclination to exercise.
You may have signed up for a gym membership, bought new workout clothes, or downloaded an exercise app, but everything remains untouched.
The current short-term pain of getting up earlier, getting to a class or the gym, missing your favourite tv show or moving your ass off the sofa is overriding the potential long-term win of enjoying improved fitness and a stronger body.
Change this around:
- How will you feel when your body becomes so stiff your mobility is affected?
- How do low energy, bad moods and weakness within your body sound?
- Do you want to start losing muscle mass and bone density?
Make the pain of not exercising so great that you start moving.
Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, which make you feel good. The more you exercise, the more you associate being active with feeling good, providing short-term pleasure and long-term wins.
Find a form of exercise you enjoy doing so it is less painful.
I have found a love for yoga and pilates — the way I connect with my body, the strength I am building, and how it makes me feel physically and mentally. Waking up at 6am so that I can fit in a half-hour session is easy — there is no pain to avoid because all I focus on is the pleasure I gain from doing it.
Imagine yourself looking forward to and prioritising time for exercise; think about how good you will feel after your session and the benefits it will have on your body.
Having a business idea that you never act upon.
You want to run your own business or set up a side hustle, but you never get around to doing anything about it. You see others making their dreams come true, earning their own money, and wish you could do the same, but still no action.
The truth is, you don’t want to give up your free time, invest in yourself or risk being a failure. The lack of action is due to the avoidance of the pain that comes from missing out on something, potentially losing money and wasting time and risking trying something that doesn’t work out.
The long-term win of being your own boss, setting your income level, and working the hours you decide seems too far away.
Change this around:
- How will you feel in 5 years when you still haven’t done anything about it?
- Imagine seeing someone else doing exactly what you have always wanted to do.
- What about that feeling you have so much more to give, that feeling of unfulfilled potential? Are you just going to carry on ignoring it?
- Think of your regret and disappointment if you never give this a go.
Make the pain of not doing this greater than missing the odd night out or doing something that initially feels uncomfortable.
Break down your business goal into small steps to achieve small milestones regularly. The short-term pleasure each tick gives you will motivate you to keep going.
It is a small victory whenever you choose to work on your business. It’s a step closer to your dream. When you make excuses for inaction, remind yourself of why you are doing this and think of how you will feel in an hour or two after completing another thing on your list.
I did not put enough effort into my business for way too long. I let the perceived pain of failure, wasting money, and worrying about what people would think of me stop me many times. Now I have a clear why I can focus on this long-term pleasure and choose to see every action I take as something to be proud of because it is a step closer to what I truly want.
I want to be in a relationship, but I push everyone away.
If you have been hurt or seen people you love get hurt in a relationship, you will associate pain with getting close to someone.
If you have read any of my previous articles, you will know that I had to push past a lot of perceived pain to find a healthy relationship.
The risk of getting hurt far outweighs the potential for love and happiness.
Change this around:
- How painful is the thought of spending the rest of your life alone?
- How does it feel when you see people laughing together and loving each other?
- How many more events do you want to attend without a +1?
Focus on the pain of not being in a relationship rather than getting hurt when in one.
Many people are in extremely happy relationships, and you could be one of them. Think of the comfort, companionship and love you see in couples you know. That is available to you too.
Remind yourself of how good it feels to be looked after, respected and listened to — by doing these things for yourself.
Go out dating with the intention of having a good time during that one date. Seek pleasure in just getting to know someone, with no expectations of what it may lead to. Associate pleasure with meeting new people and getting to know them.
These are big issues, but the same principle relates to things such as putting off that awkward phone call, checking your bank account, making that long overdue visit to a family member, and pulling off that plaster.
When you find yourself procrastinating over something or self-sabotaging your attempts to get somewhere, look at the situation as a battle between avoiding pain and gaining pleasure.
How can you flip the pain, so it becomes more painful not to do that thing?
Think about people who change their lifestyle after a severe health scare or give up that demanding job after a breakdown. Those people have had their “pain” flipped. Please don’t wait until things get really serious, as they did. Take control now and flip the pain to suit the outcome you desire.
What short-term pleasure can you associate with doing that thing?
Think about how good you will feel once that phone call is finally made or you have visited your elderly relative. Checking your bank account and facing the situation will enable you to take control and move forward. Pulling off that plaster is the next stage in the healing process.
I think you get the idea by now :
Flip The Pain and Find The Short-Term Pleasure.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash