Brain Drain. Humans do things for only two reasons: to avoid pain or to gain pleasure.

While reading Tony Robbin’s book ‘Awaken the Giant Within’ I have been thinking a lot about one concept:

”people do what they do for two reasons: to avoid pain or to gain pleasure”

This concept has been interesting to me when related to behaviour that bothers me or is clearly not serving me. Take a new years resolution. Wanting to binge eat less, lose weight, eat more healthy, work out more. Just before setting this goal we get into a positive emotional state due to some outside event which give us a jolt of emotion and motivation to formulate such a behaviour changing endeavour.

Most of the time it remains just that, a jolt of emotion and motivation. If we are lucky, we create some additional steps to make the goal more actionable, giving us another few weeks until we abandon this ambitious virtue.

Why do we set this goal initially? Probably because we think that becoming more healthy, slim, buff is going to give us pleasure. We can briefly envision what it is like to have a stronger and more healthy body. We can see ourselves on the beach looking fly as hell, or twenty years down the line, being a healthy vegan yogi that can bend like a pretzel, and we decide that it’s worth pursuing.

Then the new year rolls around and we start working out more, we meal prep and we have our first green juice or egg white omelet. A day in we feel great. ”I could do this forever! I am a new human!”, is what our endorphins tell us. But two days in we start to feel hungry, sore and we are tired of doing that 30-minute cardio on the stair master. We might even sleep in or skip a workout or two. Why do we start to compromise like that? Because our bodies now give us pain on the road to a ”new year new you”. As to avoid this short-term pain, we make a short-term decision of having pleasure in the form of that one piece of cake, or that extra snooze which will make you unable to workout before work, skipping this one workout because tomorrow is another day.

What happened to that longterm goal of looking and feeling better, more healthy and more bendy? The actions needed to get there no longer feel like a road to pleasure, they feel like a lot of pain, which our brain is conditioned to avoid. Skipping on an hour or two of sleep or skipping that beach BBQ because it’s the first summer day since months of rain and snow equals pain! We start procrastinating or avoid our changing behaviours because somewhere we believe that taking action tomorrow will be easier, and we get to avoid the pain of getting off of our butts today. Of course it will always be hard to get up earlier and take action, so before you know it four months down the line you are retweeting that ”looks like I’ll be chubby once again this summer” meme.

So what is Tony’s solution to this? Can we escape our biology?

Definitely. By ”simply” learning how to make pain and pleasure work for you, instead of against you. The pain we experience in the case of skipping that BBQ is not because we miss the event itself, it is our perception of what that means, that brings us pain. Missing that BBQ means that we miss out on the first day of good weather! The FOMO! All of my friends will be having fun and drinking beer in the sun while I chew on my piece of celery and run myself a sun stroke at the park!

It is our estimate of the situation that makes us behave a certain way, and according to Marcus Aurelius, ”you have the power to revoke your estimate at any moment”. If we can find a way to convert the discomfort of discipline into the satisfaction of personal growth, a new so called ‘neuro-association’ is made, and before we know it we associate that BBQ with pain and the choice of a healthy lifestyle with pleasure.

How the hell do I do that?

We need to start realising a few things:

  • people do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure.
  • if we do not consciously direct our thoughts and associations we will fall under the influence of making many short-term decisions, which sacrifice our longterm goals.
  • it is not actual pain that drives us, it is the fear of pain. We don’t base our actions on reality, but on our perception of reality.
  • anything valuable having is on the other end of short-term pain.
  • any time you want to make a change, the first thing you must do is raise your standards and believe you can meet them.

It is important to realise new things and do away with things we thought were true before (i.e. ”I will never become fit”) because our brains are wired to create actions that will lead us to what be believe is true about ourselves. Very concretely this means that if you do not hold the conviction that you are a fit and healthy human, your brain wil invariably direct you towards the less fit and healthy version of yourself. As we develop new beliefs about who we are, our actions can change to support the new identity.

Next to that, consistency is key. Agreeing to be fit for next summer’s holiday will probably lead to next Christmas spent stuffing your face again. In order to succeed, you must have long-term focus.

I need to excuse myself for not having a more actionable ending to this blogpost. What I take away from what I have learn’t about pain and pleasure so far, is that whenever I find myself stressing over something in life, or feel disappointed about something I have not yet obtained or achieved, I can stop and think about what my convictions say about these results. Can I change how I regard myself and the situation to change my circumstances and actions?

Sounds like a good experiment for the rest of the year.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.




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