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Why We Do What We Do: The Psychology of Motivation

Why We Do What We Do: The Psychology of Motivation

At the heart of everything we do is a driving force.

It’s a force which causes us to grab hold of – and drop – new habits, behaviors, and actions and it influences everything we do each and every day.

If you ever hope to understand why we do what we do and want to learn how to influence your behavior to live a better life, one where you’re in control, then you need to understand one basic principle: pain vs. pleasure (and the power of resistance).


The secret of success if learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.

– Tony Robbins

The idea of pain and pleasure as basic human motivators was first made popular by Sigmund Freud in 1895, although it was philosopher Epicurus around 300 B.C. who first commented on the role of these principles in human life, stating that, “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.”

Since then, Tony Robbins has become an especially notable proponent of the importance of understanding and mastering this basic aspect of human psychology, so much so that he chose it as the subject of his 2006 TED talk. If you’ve heard the phrase “pain and pleasure” before, it’s likely due to him.

So then, what’s so important about pain and pleasure? And how does it impact our life?

How pain and pleasure affects our life

In any given moment, we’re influenced to stay away from the things that make us feel pain while being driven to do the things that give us a sense of pleasure. At its heart, this is the foundation of what motivates us. And the implications of this are huge.

Examples of ways this influences our life include:

  • Staying away from healthy foods like veggies that aren’t as enjoyable to eat as unhealthy food like fast food, making us overweight and at risk of several serious diseases
  • Refraining from establishing new positive habits because of the pain we experience when trying to step out of our usual routine, keeping us from making real progress
  • Holding us back from our dreams and goals because the short-term pain of taking action and removing distractions is more immediate and noticeable than the long-term pleasure of realizing those dreams and goals

And these are just a few examples of the way that pain and pleasure can influence our life. In reality, this concept reaches into every area of our life– whether we like it or not.

So if it’s so important, the next obvious question is: can we do anything about it? Fortunately, the answer is yes.Shutterstock 564014254

How to use pain and pleasure to your advantage

Just as pain and pleasure influence our life automatically without us knowing it, we can take control of these factors and influence them to our benefit instead.

But how do you do that? By minimizing the appearance of pain and, more importantly, magnifying the pleasure or appearance of pleasure. The reality is that pain guides our actions more often than not, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why we don’t follow through with our goals or establish new habits.

If you can take something and magnify the pleasure involved with performing it, you’ll “tip the scales” so to speak and make it more likely that you’ll follow through with the positive action instead of freezing or running from pain.

Going back to our examples, here’s how you can take advantage of this:

  • PLEASURE: Record yourself or write down how you feel when you eat healthier. Note your increased energy and how great you feel and try to describe a specific experience you remember in the past when you were eating healthier and what that allowed you to do.
  • PLEASURE: Describe in detail how a new habit would change your life, use descriptive emotions and list benefits
  • PAIN: Paint a picture visually in your mind or write down what your life would look like if you never accomplished your goals. Imagine yourself on your deathbed regretting having never stood up and taken action.
  • PLEASURE (Opposite version of the above, similarly effective): Imagine what your life would look like, and how you’d feel, if you were to accomplish your major dreams and goals. By very descriptive and list details.

Either method, whether using pain or pleasure, is effective. They can even be used in conjunction to fully take advantage of the principle. And make sure that you list down how you feel in each example as emotions are the gateway to these feelings of pain and pleasure and your key to utilizing them.

Pain and pleasure are powerful forces throughout our entire life, whether we like it or not. Luckily, with a little practice and some insight, you can learn how to use these principles to your advantage and drive positive change in your life more effectively than ever before.

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