Pleasure Principle

Sigmund Freud’s “Pleasure Principle”

pleasure principle(Note! This is a rather lengthy, whimsical, tongue-in-cheek essay on one of Freud’s more important contributions to modern psychology. But I believe that if this is new material to you you’ll leave with some powerful new understandings of why you do what you do; I hope you enjoy it!)

Sigmund Freud’s “Pleasure Principle” states that behind all the complexities of human behavior our motivation to do the things we do comes down to two simple statements:

  1. We want to feel good.
  2.  We don’t want to feel bad.

In other words, what we do (or don’t do) is motivated by our desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. Pretty simple, eh?

And once you wrap your brain around this concept you can not only begin to understand why you’ve done the things you’ve done up to this point in your life but you can start using the inherent power of this simple tenet to make radical changes now. Let’s examine further.


Joe and Jim are both attorneys in the same law firm. At the end of this day they ride down the elevator together, go to the parking garage, get in their cars and head home.

pleasure principleJoe stops at a sports bar and orders a double Scotch and some chili-cheese fries. Forty-five minutes and three cigarettes later he returns to his car and continues his journey. Upon arriving home he greets his family, fixes another double and enjoys a few more cigarettes before dinner.

It’s Friday and to celebrate the end of the work week Joe has requested his favorite dinner–fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans with pieces of crisp diced bacon. When the table is cleared of the dinner dishes his wife presents him with another request, a big piece of chocolate cheesecake. Joe fixes a Scotch, retires to the family room and eases into his favorite chair.

By 10 pm he’s pretty tired from the work week but decides to have a little snack before retiring for the night. He throws a bag of popcorn into the microwave and while it’s cooking he melts three tablespoons of butter to pour over it. After picking through the un-popped kernels at the bottom of the bag Joe licks his greasy fingers, smiles and utters quietly to himself, “This is the life!”

Jim stopped on the way home, too.

Dinner wouldn’t be ready for a couple of hours so he went to the gym and spent forty five minutes on the treadmill. He grabbed a bottled water on the way out and used it to wash down a granola bar he kept in his glove box.

pleasure principleWhen he got home dinner was almost ready, giving him enough time to change out of his suit and put on a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt. His wife had fixed chicken, too. She’d cooked it under the broiler after marinating it in lime juice and Old Bay seasoning. She served the chicken with brown rice to which she’d added dried shitake mushrooms, and steamed broccoli seasoned with dill and Butter Buds.

For dessert the family enjoyed fresh berries topped with a generous dollop of fat-free Cool Whip. Jim checked the TV schedule and found nothing very interesting so he decided to catch up on his reading. He spent the next two hours with “Conversations With Katherine”, an inspiring tale of a middle aged underachiever and his rise to self actualization. Around 10 o’clock Jim fixed a small bowl of Special K and went to bed.

Despite the diametric opposition of these two scenarios the behaviors exhibited by Joe and Jim are motivated by the same things.

Both find their lifestyles pleasurable and it’s safe to say that each would find the other’s somewhat painful; this is the pleasure principle in action. How did you feel as you read the two? Were you attracted to one and turned off by the other?

Joe is an intelligent man and fully aware of the dangers of his smoking, drinking, eating habits and sedentary lifestyle. But in his mind the pleasure he gets from those behaviors far outweigh the risks and potential disastrous consequences of his unhealthy habits. And frankly, he enjoys his vices so much that he just plain doesn’t pay attention to the warnings he hears. But suppose Joe went to the doctor and heard something like this:

“Joe, you’re three cigarettes away from lung cancer.”

pleasure principle“Two more drinks and you’re your liver will start shriveling up and dying from cirrhosis. Your cholesterol is so high that if it weren’t for the color, your blood could pinch hit for the Crisco your wife uses to fry her chicken. If you don’t make some changes in you diet real soon you won’t need to worry about lung cancer or cirrhosis; your heart attack will render those moot as soon as you hit the floor dead as a doornail. You need to start exercising, too. Your feet, by the way, are fine.”

Joe knows he has to make some radical changes right now or he will suffer the ultimate consequence, an extended dirt nap. So on the way home from the doctor he stops at a sports bar to consider his options.

“Hey Joe, what’ll it be?” asks the bartender.
“One Scotch, and make it a double,” Joe replies. “And here, throw these away for me. “Joe pulls two cigarettes from the pack and hands the barkeep the remainder.
“And I’d like an order of fries–plain, no chili or cheese.” Joe then moves uncharacteristically to the solitude of a booth to consider how he’s going to make these changes.

He thinks about all the things he’ll have to give up; goodbye Scotch, goodbye ciggies, so long fried chicken and bye-bye Miss American pecan pie… with 8% milkfat ice cream on the side. Exercise? You talkin’ about the stuff I did in boot camp? Why don’t I start sleeping in a tent, too; that would make this torture so exquisitely complete! He nibbles on a fry and tells himself, “I can do this, I’ve got the willpower!”, which of course he does not.

If Joe relies on will power alone he’s going to leave his wife a widow and his kids fatherless real soon. Joe doesn’t stand a chance of making the lifestyle changes he needs to and here’s why:

Joe views making these changes as painful, and his brain is programmed to avoid pain at all costs.

As long as his focus is on quitting, the anticipation of the pain in doing so will prevent him from attempting to accomplish the things he needs to accomplish to save his life. Quite a conundrum, eh? Let’s imagine another scenario in the doctor’s office and evaluate its potential effects on the changes Joe needs to make.

“Joe, you’re three cigarettes away from lung cancer…” And so on. But rather than send Joe into battle against the entire Philistine army with a Red Rider BB gun the doctor continues,
“I know how painful it can be to say goodbye to your destructive friends so I’ve put together a video or two that I believe will get you off to a good start. Would you care to view them before you leave?”

Joe, shocked by the prognosis he’s just received, would at this point be willing to view an endless loop of the national convention of the Red Hat Society singing “It’s a Small World After All” if it would spare him the agony he was facing. So he follows the nurse into a small room, takes a seat and watches the most horrific 15 minutes of video he’s seen in his life.

He sees pictures of once-pink lungs now blackened by years of tar inhalation.

Decrepit bodies of patients on their death beds appear, tubes in their arms and mouths, faces contorted in pain as the agonizing death throes of lung cancer overtake them.

There are interviews with people who’ve lost tongues, lips and larynxes, all begging the viewer to quit smoking while there’s still a chance to avoid the pain and suffering they now endure. And always there’s the refrain,
“I never thought this would happen to me.”

pleasure principleAs the video comes to an end Joe meets Roger, a middle aged man like himself who made the decision to quit. He hops off his mountain bike, introduces himself and walks over to his waiting family, all standing beside their bikes and smiling as if they’d just passed through the gates of Heaven.

“Becoming a non-smoker was the most important decision of my life,” Roger assured the camera.

“Next to buying that hairpiece and getting your teeth bleached,” Joe thought.

Roger continued, “If I can do it so can you. Do it for yourself, (camera pulls to wide shot of adoring family) and do it for them!”

At the end of the video Joe, ashen faced and trembling, stumbles into the hall and encounters the nurse who led him to this chamber of horrors. “Are you okay, Joe?” she asks. “I’ll be fine, and I think I’ll forgo any more videos today,” he tells her. “And you’d better call a janitor–I barfed in there.”

What are Joe’s chances of quitting now? While it’s sure to be challenging, I’d say they’re a whole lot better than before he sat in the doctor’s little theater. Prior to viewing the video Joe’s focus was on the pain of quitting his bad habits and as we’ve discovered, your brain is going to do anything it can to help your body avoid that pain. But now there’s been a turning of the tables.

If Joe were to light a cigarette his brain would scream “Stop! Don’t do it!”

“You’re going to turn our lungs black and we’ll get bed sores from lying comatose in a hospital bed while waiting to die!” Joe’s change of focus from the pain of quitting to the pain of not quitting has increased the odds of achieving his desired outcome immensely. But there’s an important nuance that Joe has to discover to put him on his way to quitting for good.

Notice that we’ve been talking about pain and pleasure. To really put warp thrust behind our behavior modification the two need to work in tandem. Joe is being effectively driven away from his destructive habits but once he’s out there all by his lonesome where is he going to go?

A little boy gets angry at his mother and runs away from home.

pleasure principleAfter what seems like an eternity to the little tyke (and in reality is about ten minutes) he discovers a sobering fact: he has no place to go. So despite his anger at Mom he sucks it up and walks back through the door to his house. How many battered wives leave after an abusive episode only to return a few hours later after facing the reality that they just left the place that has been their sanctuary for years? Both the little boy and the abused wife reason that as bad as it is, at least it’s familiar. They are willing to put up with the anxiety at home rather than face the uncertainty of an unknown future. In other words,

…the pain of the familiar is better than the pain of the unknown.

But what if they had a place to go, a place that offered a pleasurable alternative to the anxiety at home? Sure, you could offer the boy a life at Disneyland and he’d come back to Mom and Dad but what about the battered wife? What if you could say to her, “Leave the painful situation at home and I will provide you with a safe and comfortable place to stay. You’ll be fed, clothed, housed and loved in an environment that will allow you to flourish. And in time, the pleasure of your new situation will render the pain of the old a distant memory.” Wouldn’t that be more effective? It’s time for Joe to have a chat with his pal Jim.

SCENE 1: At the office water cooler Monday morning.

“Jim, I’ve got a big problem.”
“What’s up, Joe?”
“I gotta quit smoking, quit drinking and start exercising. I gotta start acting like you or I’m going to die real soon.”
“Ha! Where should I send the flowers?”

“Jim, you self-righteous prick, can’t you see I’m asking for your help?”
“I know, Joe, and you know I’m just kidding. So you’re going to have to trade in your lounge slippers for some running shoes, eh?”

“Yep, and frankly it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. How do you do it? I mean the diet, the exercise, the apparent lack of killer vices?”

“Joe, by the time I got out of college I wasn’t that different than you are now; I had a lot of the same bad habits. I barely got accepted to law school and when I did I thought of what an incredible opportunity was before me. I’d grown up poor and becoming a lawyer was, to me, a dream come true.

So I made up my mind that if I was going to spend my life in this career I was going to suck every morsel of gratification out of it for as long as I possibly could. And to do that I had to get healthy.”pleasure principle

“Jim, you were a party boy?”

“Yes, Joe, I was; and a pretty good one at that.”

“But like I was saying, I took a chance that ‘healthy boy’ would be better than ‘party boy’. I quit smoking and drinking and I started exercising and watching what I ate. Within days I was feeling better. I lost 15 pounds the first month; I was more alert and I could walk up a flight of stairs without my heart pounding.”

“The longer I got into this new lifestyle the more distant my destructive addictions became.”

And you know what? I became addicted to something else; to feeling good–no, feeling great! Joe, I’ll tell you right now; if you decide to keep on living you will never, ever regret your decision.”

Joe studied Jim as he talked. Jim was lean and handsome and Joe remembered a time when he was too.

“Now,” he thought, “I’m fat, hung over most every day and a couch potato with one foot in the grave. Good thing I’m still handsome!”

pleasure principleJim’s words conjured images in Joe’s mind. He saw himself pumping iron at the gym, sweat pouring down his face and burning his eyes–men think it’s cool to sweat. He imagined running effortlessly through his neighborhood, waving at his envious male friends while their smitten wives peered through the blinds as his Adonis-like body glided over the pavement. He heard the passionate moans of his wife as he pulled her closer to his rock-hard pectorals.

“Joe–are you listening to me?”

“Uh, yeah, of course I’m listening to you! Jim, I wanna do this; will you help me to get started?”

Now Joe has a place to go.

He can run from the home of his old habits, slam the door behind him and walk right in to a brand new manor that’s flooded with glorious sunlight and the sound of Beach Boys music–Joe loves the Beach Boys. He has envisioned a bliss that will give him a second powerful weapon in changing his behaviors. Visions of intense pain drive him away from his old ways and the anticipation of a healthy and virile new lifestyle draw him like a hungry dog to a bowl of Alpo.

Will Joe succeed? Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But with these powerful associations to pain and pleasure his odds are significantly better than when he left the doctor’s office. Unlike you, Joe is not aware of the psychology behind the changes he’s about to make. But if he were he’d bring to his arsenal two more simple tools he already owns–pen and paper.

Why do things that seemed so important to us last week seem less so today?

Why do New Year’s resolutions become a reminder of our inability to change after a few short weeks? Because we forget. We envision the weight loss, the benefits of quitting smoking, the joy we’ll receive from spending more time with our families; and then we forget.

Our familiar old patterns creep in and offer us a place of familiarity and comfort and the enthusiasm for our resolution fades quietly into the background as the actions we promised to take are not taken. In order for our resolve to persevere our actions must become habits and new habits take time. While trying to create them our old habits offer resistance by promising the comfort of that which is known and unless the new associations to the new pleasures we desire are reinforced, the sirens of our old behaviors will do their best to lure us back to complacency. That’s where pen and paper come in.

There’s power in putting words on paper.

Maybe it’s the effort; maybe it’s the primal nature of recording thoughts for posterity with ink on papyrus. Whatever it is, bringing your pain/pleasure associations beyond the ethereal realm of thought and into the physical world has power. And by reminding ourselves of the pain/pleasure associations we’ve envisioned we once again greatly increase our chances for success.

I like 3×5 cards. They’re big enough to hold plenty of words and small enough to stick in a back pocket for reference when needed. If you’d like to use a sheet of paper, that’s fine. If you do I’d suggest that you put it into a binder that you keep with you during the day. Now it’s time to leave our fictional fat man and for you to do your homework.

Pick something you’d like to change. It could be a bad habit like smoking or biting your fingernails, or it could be a life altering change like a new career. It doesn’t matter which you do first, they’ll all get their chance soon enough. Just pick one and do the exercise before you leave this chapter! At the top of you 3×5 card or piece of paper write a statement that will elicit powerful, painful associations. For example:

“If I don’t stop (smoking, drinking, biting my nails), then…”
“If I continue to (stay in this relationship, remain in this career, ignore my dream), then…”

???????????Now begin listing all the things you can think of that will bring you physical or emotional pain if you don’t change your behavior. Make them strong and compelling. Do Internet research if you need to find gruesome pictures or discourses.

Make your reasons real, personal and painful!

Now, on another sheet of paper write a statement that will elicit powerfully pleasurable associations; you knew that was coming, didn’t you? Examples:

“Now that I’m an ex/non-(smoker, drinker, nail biter):”
“Since (changing careers, leaving that relationship, pursuing my dream):”

Like before, it’s time to list all the pleasurable feelings you are going to experience as you change your behaviors and begin taking control of your life. Notice that our statements are in the present tense. That’s important because I want you to start experiencing your pleasurable feelings right now! And when you do you’ll become addicted to the way you feel. Use lots of adjectives to describe what your new life is going to look, sound and feel like.

Pick as many areas of your life that need changing and do this exercise for each one. When you’re finished you’ll have a stack of cards or paper that you can refer to anytime you need to give your motivation a kick in the butt. Keep your writings close to you so you can add to them when a new pain/pleasure association comes to mind. At the very least, read them every morning and every evening before you go to bed.

As you read the powerful statements you’ve created they will become deeply engrained in your psyche and you will be amazed at the transformation you are able to affect in your life. This is powerful medicine for making real changes but remember: reading about doing the exercises is not enough. So get busy and do it!


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