25 July 2015

Pain and Pleasure Paradigms

Pain and Pleasure Paradigms

It is a fact that almost all of the choices we make in our daily life are motivated by one of two very powerful forces.  The most powerful of these two forces is the desire to avoid pain ... and the second is the desire to achieve pleasure.

Everything that we desire to do is something that we have emotionally linked to pleasure. Everything that we try to avoid doing is something that we have linked to pain. These are the two main paradigms in our life, and we have emotional associations for everything attached to one of these two categories. In essence, our experience in life is linked to either  pleasure ... or pain.

It’s all a matter of perspective

Sometimes our willpower and our logic try to battle with these two powerful forces, but any victory is usually short-lived.  Here’s an example. Almost every cigarette smoker I’ve ever met knows that smoking is bad for him. His logical mind knows that he would be better off if he stopped smoking. So why does he keep smoking? Because emotionally, smoking represents pleasure and quitting represents pain.

The only way for a smoker to stop smoking is to anchor pain to his habit and pleasure to quitting. This requires having a long-term point of view, rather than a short-term viewpoint. The irony about smoking, or any other harmful habit, is that the very thing that brings pleasure in the short term will bring pain in the long term. That means we can change how we represent that activity by switching our emotional point of reference. In short, we can change our pleasure and pain paradigms.

Consciously or subconsciously, we make a choice

I use smoking as an example because the harmful effects are universally recognized, but we could apply the same analogy to a wide variety of choices that we make every day. We can anchor pleasure to instant gratification without regard for long term consequences, or we can do the exact opposite.

Exercise could be considered painful in the short term but the long-term benefits are very desirable. If eating represents one of your greatest pleasures, then the very thought of dieting would represent pain. So, for some people, exercising and dieting is a double dose of pain, and yet logically they realize that this is the fastest path to physical fitness. In this ongoing tug of emotions and logic, the mind is usually no match for the emotional need to avoid anything that may be perceived as pain.

Using mental leverage to change our paradigms

Understanding how pain and pleasure exert their influence in our own lives is the first step toward taking control. We all have the ability to use our mental leverage to change our pleasure and pain paradigms and reset our emotional anchors. In other words, we can choose what is painful ... and what is pleasurable.

Many things in our lives influence what we view as painful and what we view as pleasurable, but paradigms are about association, they’re about internal interpretations. Learning how to use our minds to harness the power of our emotions is an extremely powerful tool for anyone who wants to make positive changes in their life.

More Pleasure – Less Pain 

There are a couple of things that need clarification regarding our emotional desire to seek pleasure, and to avoid pain. It’s not the actual pain or pleasure that drives us, it is really something else.

Our desire to avoid pain is really based on fear. What fear? The fear of taking any action that feels like it might lead to painful situation or experience.

Likewise, it’s not the actual pleasure that motivates us to take action, but our "belief" that a certain action will lead to a pleasurable experience. So, our movement in either direction is a response to our perception of where that action will lead.

The power of anticipation and anxiety

Have you ever noticed that the anticipation of the pain we think might result from a certain action is generally much worse than the actual experience?  Here’s an example ... if you’ve ever done any public speaking it’s usually the 10 or 15 minutes just before you get on stage that create the greatest anxiety.

You may experience all kinds of symptoms like an increased heart rate, a rise in body temperature and even a nauseous feeling in your stomach. At this point are any of these symptoms the result of actual public speaking? No ... they are caused by your estimation of what the experience might be like ... not by the actual activity itself.

Judging from the personal experiences of most public speakers, everyone seems to agree that the anxiety that comes before hand generally vanishes as soon as they begin speaking. Anxiety of course, is a form of fear.

Where does the fear come from?

There are so many different kinds of fear that it is impossible to label them all, but it is possible to identify where they all come from. The reason we can do that is because fear is always related to one or more of these three primary human desires.

1) A desire for approval
2) A desire for control
3) A desire to feel secure

If you examine any fear, whether it’s the fear of rejection, of failure, or of loss, you will discover that - on an emotional level - it represents a perceived threat to your sense of approval, sense of control, or sense of security.

Fear grows or shrinks with focus

Take the example of the public speaker. Once he gets on stage and focuses on his topic, he can settle down and enjoy the experience. But during the 10 to 15 minutes before he gets on stage, he is not thinking about his topic, instead he is focused on himself. He is wondering if he’ll have the approval of his audience, if he’ll have control of his voice and body language, and the anxiety is making him feel insecure.

The solution is to focus on the pleasure attached to a favorable outcome. For example, the feelings of satisfaction and approval that will come from a job well done. By visualizing a pleasurable outcome there is a complete shift the focus. Excitement replaces anxiety and the expectation of pleasure replaces fear. Moving toward a pleasurable outcome is an experience attached to pleasure ... so it is one we can look forward to.

Choosing less pain and more pleasure

Now we can see that one way to avoid pain and move toward pleasure is simply to change our focus. In our example, a short-term focus created pain in the form of fear and anxiety, while a long-term focus turned the whole experience into one that is anchored in pleasure.

Once we understand the relationship between focus - pain or pleasure - we can easily change our perception of any experience.  By controlling your focus you give yourself the ability to decide whether an experience will be painful or pleasurable. Then you can choose pleasure over pain.

Creating Your own Pain and Pleasure Paradigms

We would all like to think that we make up our own minds as to what is pleasurable and what is painful. In reality we are constantly being conditioned by our environment to link certain things with pain or pleasure.

Can you think of any environmental influences that are conditioning your feelings about what is pleasurable and what is painful? Learning to recognize these influences is an important step toward seizing control of your personal pleasure and pain paradigms.

5 sources of external pain and pleasure programming

1. Advertisers. The entire advertising industry is based on the idea that they can influence our internal references to pain and pleasure. As a whole, this industry spends billions of dollars each year to study human behavior. They do this because their goal is to link their products to our emotions. Their advertising campaigns are specifically designed to create subconscious emotional associations (anchors) in us without our being aware of it.

2. Friends and associates. The attitude of our close friends and associates also has a powerful influence on our personal pleasure and pain paradigms. Their opinions can actually precondition us to view things the way that they do. We may value someone else’s opinion so much that we subconsciously adopt their viewpoint without any personal experience.

3. Experts. So called experts carry incredible weight when it comes to overriding our opinions about a wide variety of things. By positioning themselves as the voice of authority, it psychologically downgrades the validity of our own thoughts and feelings. This positioning is designed so that we will adopt the attitude of “they’re the expert, so who am I to question them.” Is it any wonder that advertisers like pharmaceutical companies love this approach?

4. Groups. Trying to gain the approval of, or fit in with, a group can also shape and reshape our preferences. In such cases, acceptance often hinges on our ability to conform to the group opinion. It’s the old "majority rules" mentality that has been ingrained in us since childhood. It is hard to avoid slipping into the thought pattern of “If all these people agree then they must be right, so I better get onboard or I’ll look like a fool.” Conformity can cause otherwise rational people to abandon their standards and go with the crowd. Pushed to the extreme it becomes mob mentality.

5. Stereotypes. Forming stereotypes is one of the tools our mind uses so we don’t need to continually reconsider the same thing over and over again. Our minds tend to group similar experiences into general categories. If we encounter a new experience that seems to fit into one of these categories it saves us the time and energy involved in evaluation. So, if something fits into a category that has always resulted in pain, we will naturally assume that this similar something will cause pain as well.

For example, if every time you try to go on vacation you wind up having car trouble, in the future you will probably expect more of the same. The very thought of vacation may conjure up an image of being stuck on the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck. As a result, an activity designed to bring you pleasure now represents pain.

Take control of this process

The important point to remember here is that we need to develop the ability to decide for ourselves what we will view as pleasurable and what we will view as painful. If we don’t take control of this process, then the world around us will take over our internal programming.

If we allow that to happen, then instead of controlling our environment, we will end up being controlled by it. Because the pain and pleasure dynamic has such a powerful influence on our lives, we owe it to ourselves to take personal responsibility for how we choose to view things.

Your answers create your paradigms

Whenever something happens in your life, your brain will ask two questions. First, “Is this going to bring me pain or pleasure?” Second, “What must I do now to avoid the pain and/or gain the pleasure?”

How you choose to interpret the situation will determine your answers. But more than that, it will also form the foundation for your future expectations. If you want less pain and more pleasure in your life, this is a good place to start. Remember ... perception is everything. 

~Justin Taylor, ORDM., OCP., DM.

Special thanks to Advanced Life Skills.