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The Pain and Pleasure Principle

Estimated Lesson Time: 6 minutes

“Why do we do the things we do?” Although human behavior is extremely complex, one of the reasons we do know is to avoid pain and/or to gain pleasure. This age-old concept recently popularized by success author Anthony Robbins, is just as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Understanding this principle is like unlocking the secrets to human behavior and will allow you to take more control over your own life and help others to regain control over theirs.

Why do people smoke cigarettes? As a non-smoker, you may even go as far as seeing smokers as “less than human.” I mean, how could human beings do that to themselves? The fact is, smokers are every bit as human as the rest of us; smokers just associate more pleasure with smoking than they do pain and/or associate more pain to not smoking than they do pleasure. Understanding this principle will allow you to be more empathetic to others’ actions and behaviors.

Understanding this principle is only the first step. To change a behavior, we need to associate more pain with the behavior and more pleasure with changing the behavior. Once that is done, the behavior is likely to change. It is that powerful. Think of it as an old-fashioned scale, where we have the reasons for change on one side and reasons not to change on the other. Even though it is better to think in positive terms, the need to avoid pain is generally a greater motivator than the need to gain pleasure. So in order to change the behavior, we need to tip our scale to the reasons for change.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself that it can’t be that easy. Well it is, and it isn’t. The key is to make the associations strong enough in your mind, so you are convinced, without question, the behavior must change. Let’s go through this process with the example of biting fingernails.

  1. Identify the behavior you wish to change. We did that—biting (hopefully, just our own) fingernails.
  2. Decide to change the behavior. You know you want to stop biting your fingernails but you continue to bite them. The reason is that you associate more pleasure with biting your fingernails than you do pain. Remember, when a successful person makes a decision, they eliminate all other options.
  3. Get the facts. In the old days, like before 1995, you would need to go to the library and spend hours researching. Today, we use the Internet and get all the facts we can possibly handle in minutes (I prefer Google.com because of the lack of intrusive ads). Be sure to check the reliability of your sources. “Jim’s fingernail-biting heaven” may not be the best source for facts. This step allows you to gather reasons for changing the behavior.
  4. Make a cons and pros list. Notice I wrote “cons and pros” and not “pros and cons.” This is because the cons list should be first, that is, in this case, the reasons for NOT changing the behavior. Be completely honest with yourself and list all of the reasons why you do not want to change the behavior. Your list may look something like this:

Reasons NOT to change behavior (cons)

  • biting my fingernails helps me to relieve stress and tension
  • I can’t stand having long fingernails
  • gives me something to do
  • I would rather bite my fingernails than be snacking on food or smoking

Now for the reasons to change (pros), do more than just write them down. Vividly imagine each reason with your eyes closed if needed. You can’t just read and write the words, you have to paint a clear mental picture.

Reasons TO change behavior (pros)

  • well manicured nails on both males and females are attractive and often admired by others
  • the millions of germs and microscopic organisms that live under my fingernails should stay there, and not be relocated to my mouth
  • nails that are not bitten will not bleed or cause pain
  • a potential mate would be more likely to want to kiss me without fingernails in my mouth
  • biting fingernails is a viewed as a sign of weakness and reflects poorly on my character
  1. Revisit and Rebuke. Now revisit your cons list and rebuke your own statements with positive, behavior changing reasons and alternatives when possible.
  • biting my fingernails helps me to relieve stress and tension - biting my fingernails actually adds to stress since I only do this when I am stressed. Nail biting is not a good form of releasing stress. Instead, I will use one of the squeeze balls or grippers and build up my forearm muscles as well as relieve stress!
  • I can’t stand having long fingernails - I will then make sure I use a nail clipper to cut my nails to an acceptable length to me. I will also be sure that the nail clipper is nearby at all times.
  • gives me something to do - I have enough to do. Do I really want to spend my energy and time biting my nails that just grow back every day?
  • I would rather bite my fingernails than be snacking on food or smoking - Why not snack on something low in calories and nutritious like carrots or celery? Heck, after writing the pros of not biting fingernails, even snacking on Twinkies would be better than biting my fingernails!

At this point, you should be convinced without question that changing the behavior is a MUST. If not, go back to step 3 and get more facts. Talk to people who have changed the behavior and add their successful reasons for change to your pros list. If you ever “fall off the wagon,” it is very likely that you still associate more pleasure with the behavior than pain, or more pain to quitting than pleasure.

The pain and pleasure principle is simple yet so powerful.  Understanding this principle makes it clear that not only is changing a behavior possible, but with enough reasons on your side, change of the behavior is inevitable.


Take Your Year To Success To the Next Level

If you like what you are reading, please consider these options in addition to this free course. They include a hardcopy of the book and an intensive course with action steps, assignments, and personal coaching from Bo.

  • Buy the Book. Year To Success - Available in hardcover, signed by the author. Also available in ebook, paperback, and audio from Amazon.com.
  • Enroll is the Enhanced Version of this Course - 366 Days To Greater Personal, Professional, and Financial Success. These lessons but with videos, narrated slides, assignments, and quiz questions. For the instructor-evaluated version, Bo is there for you each day!
  • Enroll in Bo's Life Mastery Online CourseThis is a course that covers hundreds of life-enhancing topics that they never taught in school, but should. This is more than a course on self-improvement; it is a course on mastering life.
  • Business Consulting / Life Coaching. Contact Bo any time by e-mail, Skype, or phone to discuss your business ideas or personal success goals.

Have a podcast or know someone who does? Putting on a conference? Dr. Bennett is available for interviews and public speaking events. Contact him directly here.

 Some discussion questions (some may not apply to this lesson):

  • Have you implemented this idea in your life? How has it been working for you?
  • Do you have any interesting stories related to this lesson? Do tell!
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    Year To Success
    Bo Bennett, PhD
    Social Scientist, Business Consultant
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    Personal Development : Personal Transformation
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