In life we experience both pleasure and pain. Depending where this balance sits can have a big effect on how motivated we are to do certain things. Pain pushes us, it motivates us to get away from the thing that is causing us pain. Pleasure pulls us, it motivates us to move towards what we think will bring us pleasure. Depending on whether you're being motivated by the push of pain or the pull of pleasure, can have a big impact on your likelihood of achieving a goal or sticking to a new habit long term.
Often the initial motivating force is pain. But if you'll observe, while getting away from pain may get you started, it's not likely to keep you going.
Think about the last goal you set yourself or new habit you voweled to keep. What motivated you? What was the pain you were trying to get away from?
Perhaps it was physical pain, a sore back that got so bad you finally made an appointment at the chiropractor, or was it insomnia that caused you to join a meditation class or download an app. It may have been the pain of a relationship at breaking point that compelled you reach out to a counsellor or take action to change the situation, or the stress of mounting debt that pushed you to seek expert advice and create a budget.
Often we won't act or make changes until the pain of something gets so bad we can't stand it anymore, so we reach out for help, we set a goal, or start a new daily habit.
But what happens as we progress on our journey towards improving a situation? Things will hopefully start to improve, which means the pain lessens a little. The balance of pleasure and pain evens out.
Can you see that if your sole motivation was getting away from pain, as the pain lessens a little it becomes more bearable? You're now not so motivated to keep up those counsellor visits, do your meditation practice, or stick to that budget.
The new habit may be broken and we can slip back into our old ways and back down towards our pain tolerance threshold. Can you see how this could be the cause of a yo yo effect, preventing you from getting to your ultimate goal or experiencing the full rewards and pleasure of your new habits? This experience of yo-yo-ing can result in frustration and feelings of hopelessly.
Now imagine your motivation is pleasure. The pleasure of physical health and being able to do whatever you like without restriction and without pain, the pleasure of a happy relationship with mutual respect and shared experiences, the pleasure of cutting up that credit card and easily paying bills, or the pleasure of a good night's sleep where you wake up refreshed and restored.
When we're being pulled by pleasure there's no end point to the motivation we feel to keep moving towards it, all the way to achieving our desired goal or outcome. So long as we keep the feelings of the pleasure we'll receive alive within us.
So how does all of this relate to mental wellbeing.
Let's apply the same theory. Imagine the pain of the mental distress you're experiencing gets so unbearable that you seek help, attend a seminar, start a daily gratitude practice, or reach for a self development book. The counselling session, therapy, or new daily wellbeing building habits begin to help and you're starting to feel better. The pain lessons. Eventually you find yourself not so motivated.
This image is a helpful visual to show the difference between traditional psychology, which is about treating illness and suffering, and positive psychology, which is about building wellbeing and flourishing.
We all have a different pain threshold or breaking point. Maybe it's a -3 that is the tipping point where you seek help or positive intervention, or it may not be until you get to a -8 or lower. At some point either yourself or someone who cares about you will push you to do something.
If you're solely motivated by getting away from pain, at the point you start to feel ok (a zero on the scale above), there's no longer a strong push to continue on with what is working.
For many of us, most days we're feeling ok, so why would we bother to actively build our wellbeing? Let's take a look at why functioning on just 'ok', is a tenuous place to be.
Life is full of stress. Things to do, places to be, balls to juggle. When everything's going to plan, most days we can manage to keep all of those balls in the air.
But what happens when trauma or adversity come along - someone you care about passes away or gets sick, you're yelled at by your boss, your car breaks down, or your partner losses their job? Any number of things can go wrong at any stage of our lives, adversity is a fact of life. Our capacity to cope with that adversity is greatly enhanced when we are mentally functioning at a high level. ie. we're sitting up at around a 7 or 8 on the positive psychology scale shown above.
But wait there's more. Psychological flourishing doesn't only protect us in times of adversity, there are all sorts of pleasurable daily rewards, like confidence, zest, creativity, productivity, good relationships, meaning, purpose, and joy.
What does all this mean?
If you're wanting to create lasting, life long habits to flourish both mentally and physically, get more out of life, take challenges in your stride, increase your resilience to stress, and feel joyful, then it's time to focus on shifting your motivating driving force to pleasure, rather than pain.
Here's a good place to start.
CREATE A 'PLEASURE LIST'
Imagine yourself as a psychologically thriving, flourishing being. Visualise how you look (your posture and body language), how you feel, and how you function in your life and with the people around you. Make a list of all of the pleasurable payoffs, both tangible (outcomes based) and emotional. Look at this list each morning and each night. Feel the feelings and imagine receiving the rewards. Build your pleasure motivation by continually emulating those feelings within. When you notice your motivation waning or you break a daily wellbeing habit, pull out your 'pleasure list' and remind yourself of the pleasure you're moving towards when you make the right choice for you in that moment.
If it were that easy...
In theory it appears easy, but like all things worth striving for, often in practice it's not. Recognise from the outset that building wellbeing is a daily choice. Actively increasing your pleasure motivation will help you make choices that keep moving you in the direction you want to go. The light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter the closer you move towards it. Each day take another step towards it. If today is a day you take a step backwards, that's ok, tomorrow is a new day, and a new opportunity to step forward.
A Pep Talk is a vigorous, emotional talk intended to lift the spirits of yourself or someone else; and arouse positive feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, confidence, and determination to succeed.... PEPTALK as an organisation empowers people by delivering evidence-based knowledge and tools that build mental wellbeing and protect against mental illness, in engaging ways that are accessible, digestible, and actionable.