What is the Role of Pain and Pleasure in Making Decisions?

The pleasure principle is a term originally used by Sigmund Freud to characterize the tendency of people to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We naturally want to go away from pain, and in the direction of pleasure. In fact, for many people, their lives become entirely controlled by avoiding pain. They may live their whole life trying to avoid what they don't want.

Now, trying to avoid pain is very different than going in the direction of pleasure - or what we DO want. For example, let's say there is something we know will be painful. Something that we know we don't want to experience. We could then define what we do want as being in the opposite direction of that.

But most people aren't going to go straight in that opposite direction. Instead, they're going to try to avoid what it is that they don't want. So they'll often zig zag around in life, but not necessarily go in the direction of what they actually want.

And there are also people who will continue to go towards what they know will be painful or what they know they don't want, hoping that one day it's magically going to somehow get better or turn into what they do want. And in this scenario, it's more than likely they're going to be angry at life or often play the victim role, even if it's on a less than conscious level.

Basically, many people spend their entire lives fighting or avoiding what they don't want - instead of going in the direction of what they do want. And so, it's helpful to ask ourselves whether the things we do - are to avoid certain consequences, or are we doing them because that's what we actually want to do?

For example, I might ask myself, am I staying in this relationship because I really want to be with this person? Or am I staying in this relationship because I'm afraid to be alone, or I wouldn't know how to support myself?

Am I doing something for someone because I really want to help this person? Or am I doing something just so they won't get mad at me or reject me?

Am I exercising because I really want to be fit and feel good in my body? Or am I exercising because it gets me the attention or validation I need in order to feel loved or accepted?

Now, keep in mind that while one person may do something to avoid a consequence, another person may do the same exact thing, but it's actually in alignment with what they genuinely want.

And this could even apply to the same person - meaning, on one day, someone might do something because they want to, and on another day, they might do that same exact thing just to avoid a consequence.

But the point is that even from these examples, you can sense that when we're doing something just to avoid consequences or pain, it's completely different than doing something because we really want to.

An example of someone avoiding what they don't want, could be someone stuck in a career they hate or feel dispassionate about. In avoidance mode, they might go into denial and start trying to convince themselves why they should stay in the field.

They might tell themselves it's not that bad, or it pays well - or I've already been through so much schooling that it would be such a waste to quit now. Often when we are trying to convince ourselves that the wrong path is actually the right path, we may even try to double down on it - almost like a last-ditch effort to try to validate or justify the previous decisions and choices we've made.

On the other hand, this person might just become honest with themselves - that they really want to be in a different career. They might start making a plan to leave their current job. They might start exploring different fields or begin networking with people that are also looking to switch careers.

So, while this person might not even know what field they would like to transition to - they will begin to start acting in ways that prevent the pain or the unwanted from happening. And these preventative measures will feel in alignment because they are bringing themselves closer to more of what they want.

Unlike going in the direction of what they don't want (which will feel like resistance or feeling trapped), even taking preventative measures will feel more expansive and empowering - because they're bringing about what they want. They're consciously choosing what they're thinking and doing, versus just trying to avoid a consequence.

Because when we're doing things just to avoid what we don't want, it's really an energy of just trying to survive. We may feel controlled or forced into taking actions just to be able to avoid what we don't want. And as a result, we have less time and energy to focus on what we do want.

So we can begin to feel resentful towards the people or situations that we feel are forcing us to self-preserve at the expense of our other desires. We may start blaming the people who we feel are controlling us, but in reality, we are being controlled by our own unexamined priorities and fears.

Big picture wise, it is not possible to live a purposeful or fulfilled life if we are simply living to avoid what we don't want or if we're constantly in survival mode - because then we would just be living life in reaction only. The only challenges we would ever face would be those that life throws at us.

Instead, we must consciously choose the direction of our lives. Of what we truly want. Because our greatest challenges in life should be those we give ourselves - in order to reach our full potential.