The Power of Pain and Pleasure Paradigms

Power of Pain and Pleasure Paradigms

Almost all of the choices we make in our daily life are motivated by one of two powerful forces.  The most powerful of these forces is the desire to avoid pain and the second is the desire for pleasure.

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

It’s all a matter of perspective

Sometimes our willpower and logic try to do 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 ironic thing 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 only used 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-war between emotions and logic the mind is usually no match for the emotional need to avoid anything 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.

Are the paradigms in your life serving you?
Have you ever attached pleasure to something harmful?
The lines are open!

This is part 1 in a 3 part series of articles dealing with pain and pleasure paradigms. 
For the rest of the story, check out…
Part 2: More Pleasure – Less Pain
Part 3: Creating Your own Pain and Pleasure Paradigms

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Recreate Your Reality


  1. David Stevens July 8, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    Spot on. It’s often “painful” making decisions, choosing things that are ‘good’ for you. It’s ‘easy’ in the comfort zone. Change your old stories & move forward I say. Some interim pain for long term gain.
    be good to yourself

    • Jonathan July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi David, that’s a nice little saying “Some interim pain for long term gain.” It’s funny how we can choose to anchor almost any experience as either pleasurable or painful. The ability to control our perception is such a valuable skill.

  2. Jonathan,

    You make such an important point here – that we are always choosing. When we engage in automatic habits, it certainly seems like we don’t have a choice, but when we realize we are actually choosing, and why we are choosing it as you explain so clearly here, then there is the possibility of change. Great idea for a series – I look forward to the next articles.

    • Jonathan July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Gail, how nice to hear from you. There is a is a funny relationship between choice and responsibility, the two always go hand in hand. It seems like everyone wants the freedom to choose, but many don’t want to accept the responsibility for their choices. How much better to accept both rather than give away (or never claim) the power of choice.

  3. Evan July 8, 2011 Reply

    I think pleasure and pain is a way of classifying our motivations. My motivation is often curiosity. It isn’t pleasure – but then could be classed as pleasurable I suppose.

    • Jonathan July 11, 2011 Reply

      You are right Even, motivation is driven by the desire to avoid pain or gain pleasure. Those are the two classifications. Curiosity is on the pleasure side because it causes us to move toward the perceived possibility of a pleasurable experience or discovery. When we anchor discovery and adventure as pleasurable it stimulates our sense of curiosity. If we were to anchor those same experiences in pain it would result in a fear of the unknown and our curiosity would be extinguished.

  4. Melody July 9, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    Interesting that you brought up exercise. So many people think that exercise has to be painful. They go to the gym, power through, feel awful and then quit.They’ve associated exercise with pain. When in fact, if you don’t push too hard, it can feel really good. Changing the associations we’ve made is kind of the same as changing our beliefs. Great topic!


    • Jonathan July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Melody, you are correct, our association is based on an assumption that we accept as a belief. True or false, we form assumptions based on different criteria, then we store them as beliefs. In turn our programmed response patterns are based on those beliefs.

      As far as exercise, I am one of those guys who pushes it to the max in the gym. In fact, I have done this most of my life. The funny thing is, I like the pain and intensity because I have anchored it to pleasure based on the belief that brief but very intense exercise creates positive changes in me on every level. It is a perfect example of how we can choose whether an experience is painful or pleasurable.

  5. Stephen July 9, 2011 Reply

    Looking forward to the rest of the series Jonathan. Nicely done!

    • Jonathan July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Stephen, thank you! This is one of those topics that really gets me rolling. There is so much potential for creating positive change based on our pain and pleasure paradigms and yet very few people ever talk about it.

  6. marc July 10, 2011 Reply

    “No pain to gain!”

    If we want to achieve a long-term goal which is highly pleasurable, we have to accept the short-time moments filled with what we perceive as painful.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Jonathan July 11, 2011 Reply

      You said the magic word Marc, perceived pain. That is exactly what it is, which means that changing our perception changes out experience.

  7. Galen Pearl July 11, 2011 Reply

    I made much needed changes in my life when the pain/fear of changing finally became less scary to me than the pain/fear of staying the same. In that sense, the promised pleasure tipped the balance in favor of doing the work to make the changes. Your portrayal of this balance is spot on.

  8. Jonathan July 11, 2011 Reply

    Hi Galen, your experience exemplifies the way this whole process usually goes. We tend to resist change until the pain of not changing is greater than the fear based pain we associate with change. Once we know that this is the standard course for change we can shortcut the process deliberately.

  9. Andrew July 12, 2011 Reply

    Hey Jonathan,
    This is a fundamental concept for anyone who wants to create growth in their life. If you leave it to chance, you’ll unconsciously default to immediate pleasure over pain. But when you can bring consciousness into the equation, you have so much more control and freedom to create valuable changes in your life. Great series so far!

    • Jonathan July 12, 2011 Reply

      Nicely put Andrew, you would think that it being a fundamental concept would translate into widely practiced. But if that were the case we probably wouldn’t need life coaches and then I would have to find something else to do. Job security I guess!

  10. henry July 12, 2011 Reply

    “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.” This is a novel idea for my emerging self. Mentally, I am quickly moving from crawling to walking. There is a serendipitous confluence of new ideas finding there way into my consciousness lately. I feel like I am finally awakening. I can’t get enough of this valuable information to apply in my life. Though it feels piecemeal, the pieces are certainly coming together. Thank you very much for sharing your experience and insight.

    • Jonathan July 16, 2011 Reply

      Hi Henry, that experience you are describing is one that is near and dear to me also. It can last a life time and learning is the spark that keeps the flame alive. Congratulations!

  11. beachmama July 15, 2011 Reply

    Hello Jonathan! Just found you and subscribed to your RSS feed.

    Meaty subject, great post.

    My husband will often pop up with, “well, I guess you haven’t suffered enough pain over this yet . . .” when I’m ‘beating my head against the wall’ over some difficult issue. I’ve even taken to repeating this to my teenage son when he’s veering down (what I view as) the wrong path.

    What keeps me mostly in the ‘pleasure’ mode in life is principles and values. For example, I value health, fitness, and compassion more than I value food as gratification.

    I quit smoking over 25 years ago using the pain vs. pleasure paradigm. I watched my grandfather, a man I adored, suffer and die from emphysema. Shortly after his death I decided that I was done with smoking. I used the visualization of diseased lungs and a slow painful death to kick start my path and then moved to pleasurable rewards. It worked beautifully. I never looked back.

    I’m looking forward to reading more ~ thanks Jonathan!

    • Jonathan July 16, 2011 Reply

      Hi beachmama, your husband sounds like a smart guy :) Staying in harmony with our core values and principles is vital for avoiding internal conflict (pain). Any pleasure that requires a compromise in this area is just pain wrapped up in an illusion.

  12. Geraldine April 4, 2013 Reply

    I am a Social Service Worker student doing a research paper on Paradigms and found your site. I would like first to say thank you. Not only will I use the information in my work, I will also use it for my crazy life. I have revisited my own paradigm and discovered I am way off track. I want to encourage others to stay true to yourself and stand up for your inner child. Defend what is right and love people who are lost and looking for themselves.

  13. Bill Peak June 25, 2013 Reply

    The only way for a smoker to stop smoking is to anchor pain to his habit and pleasure to quitting. Amen to this statement.

  14. Carolyn Coffin July 18, 2013 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,

    I love your work, and this concept of pain and pleasure paradigms resonated with me as another way off helping the clients I coach to turn their health around! I hope you don’t mind but I have linked to this post.

    Many thanks for a phenomenal website!
    Carolyn Coffin

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