Freud’s Pleasure Principle suggests that we instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain to satisfy biological and psychological human needs — or, saying it another way, we do things in life that either help us feel good or protect us against not feeling good. There is merit in this theory, as you can probably think of just the things you did today and quickly trace back why you did those things. You may have gone to work to seek pleasure (the money you earn allows you to live well), or exercised at the gym before work to avoid pain (perhaps a recent health checkup revealed that losing weight would help offset heart disease concerns). As you work your way down the list of things you have done today, it’s quite likely you can quickly attribute each action to either gaining pleasure, or avoiding pain.
Using the Pleasure Principle for motivation
When it comes to human motivation the greatest challenge might be directing thoughts (i.e. start working out again) into action (actually getting off the couch and completing a workout). Cognitively speaking, we first experience an interest or need to make a change, but then taking action to actually make the change can be an entirely different story. What changes after the initial “light bulb” that goes on in our heads suggesting we do something new or different? Often we are very excited about the prospect of future change, but following through with future goals can be daunting, intimidating, frustrating, and overwhelming.
One strategy to consider the next time you have an idea for an important future life change is to stop and walk through the Pleasure Principle to learn what force — gaining pleasure or avoiding pain — serves as greater motivation for you. In many cases your future goals can be driven from either end of the pleasure-pain spectrum, but you must first fully embrace which force drives you and the unique reasons that you have developed conviction for future change. For example, examine the following:
- Seeking a new job. Pain could drive you out of your current job (i.e. you hate working so hard for so little pay), or pleasure could motivate you (by attaining a new job you will be paid in line with your education and experience, thereby eliminating the financial stress you have experienced in the current job).
- Getting in better shape. If you aren’t happy about your physical health, you could gain motivation from pleasure by thinking about how much better you will look and feel by getting in shape, or you could use the avoidance of pain as a motivator by thinking about how continued lethargy and future obesity risks relate to a host of health concerns, including shorter life span.
- Improving grades at school. Doing better at school can lead to better job opportunities, greater financial security, and many other wonderful things (pleasure to seek), while doing poorly at school can result in fewer jobs, less pay, and greater work dissatisfaction (pain to avoid). The next time you sit for a boring lecture you might perk up when you connect that doing well on a test leads to a better score for the course, which in turn gets you closer to graduation, the career of your choice, and all the benefits and life perks that come with your accomplishments.
Identify the motivator, then keep it front-and-center
Learning what drives you in the various goals you want to accomplish is only half of the battle. Yes, getting that bump of enthusiasm through pleasure or pain may work in the short-run, but it’s easy to lose that energy, focus, and motivation if you don’t keep your driving force in front of you at all times. As creatures of habit, it’s not always easy to immediately change behaviors (and sustain that change over time), making it important to create visual reminders whenever possible. For example, you might use pictures, notes on the refrigerator, or even smart phone reminders of the reason(s) you are making changes in your life — while this isn’t a guarantee you won’t lose your motivation (there are no guarantees in life), it will dramatically increase the odds that you will stay on course.
Making big changes in our lives requires that we develop the conviction, confidence, courage, and motivation to run through brick walls. Expect there to be stress and adversity, but by identifying (and reminding yourself of) the reasons why you want and need change will guide you through the most difficult of times.