As I have been working through internal and external challenges, I’ve started noticing a common theme. It may be cliché, but in this life – pain and pleasure are always linked. Let me explain.

If you want to lose weight or gain muscle, you have to make sacrifices in order to achieve those goals. These sacrifices will likely include giving up foods you enjoyed for healthier options, rearranging your schedule to fit in gym time, and perhaps reworking your budget to hire a coach or trainer. The pains are necessary in order to achieve the pleasure of reaching your goal.

On the reverse side, if you find yourself overweight and out of shape – the reason is due to the fact that you chose pleasurable experiences over painful ones. You chose to sit on the couch instead of exercise after a long day of work. You chose the second portion or serving of dessert. You chose things to alleviate the stress, numb the anxiety, or distract from the heaviness of life.  


The Principle

All of our choices are guided by the Pain-Pleasure Principle. Every decision we make is either in the avoidance of pain or towards the pursuit of pleasure. Other psychologists and authors have further broken it down into 4 categories:

  • Short-term pain
  • Short-term pleasure
  • Long-term pain
  • Long-term pleasure

The tricky piece is that short-term pain or pleasure does not always lead to short-term consequences. Rather, it seems that more often than not, they have an inverse relationship: short-term choices lead to long-term consequences/rewards and vice versa.

Short pleasures are often long regretted. - Swedish Saying 

When you choose to binge eat, or smoke, or view pornography – you are trading short-term pleasures for long-term pains (unhealthy body, lungs, or view of sex). When you choose to stay in an abusive relationship or soul-crushing job (long-term pains), you are gaining some sort of short-term pleasure as a reward (avoidance of reality, familiarity).

I’m sharing this concept and examples because I want us to realize we have more control than we think. If we can accept that our actions and decisions have been guided by the Pain-Pleasure Principle, then we can take the first steps towards making the principle work for us, instead of against us.


What We Ultimately Want

Of the four categories above, the one we are all imperfectly aiming for is long-term pleasure. We want healthy bodies well into our senior years, happy marriages filled with good memories, and fulfilling careers that make us feel like we have contributed to the world. The reason we struggle with long-term pleasure is because we get distracted by its counterpart: short-term pleasure.

Not all short-term pleasures are bad. Not all short-term pleasures are destructive. And not all short-term pleasures lead us away from long-term pleasure. However, as a rule – if pain and pleasure are always linked, then you cannot get to your long-term pleasure by continually seeking short-term pleasures. It’s like trying to drive across the country but making a right turn every time the opportunity arises. It doesn’t matter how fast your drive, you’re only ever going to go in circles.


You Always Have A Choice

For the majority of your life, whether you believe it or not, you have the ability to choose what pains and what pleasures you will experience. The choice is yours and whether you realize it or not, you’re making it every single day.

  • Whether you wake up right away or snooze the alarm
  • Whether you prepare your lunch or grab fast food
  • Whether you exercise, create, pray – or avoid, numb, and ignore

Every day you are choosing pain or pleasure, and that choice is creating your future.


So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (MSG) 


The more Jesus has for you will come at a cost. This life will bring you both pain and pleasure – there’s no way around it. However, the powerful truth is that we get a say in the matter. We get a choice in what we will accept, in what we will struggle for, and in the trade-offs we will make.

Pain is not always your enemy. Pleasure is not always your friend. They will each cost you something and give you something. They are here for us, and the life we want depends on using them well.


Additional Resources:
Pleasure Now, Pain Later - Scientific study on how expectations, mental health, and the pain-pleasure principle all fit together.
Achieve The Impossible - Practical application of the principle. 
Propulsion Technique for Motivation - Helpful article which goes into "anchoring" techniques (i.e. changing what we associate pain and pleasure to).