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The Preferred Pain Theory

The Preferred Pain Theory

    The common sense view of pain and pleasure is that humans seek pleasure and try to avoid pain. Lately I’ve come to wonder if that’s backwards, or at least incomplete. I see too many examples in which people appear to be chasing pain.

    My theory is that our biggest motivator is the need to feel alive, and that pleasure isn’t a sharp enough feeling to get us there. When you’re bored or lonely, you’re feeling something closer to death than life. And so you seek out pain to remind yourself that you’re alive. By this theory, the quest for pain is the primary motivator of all major life choices.

    One test of a theory is that it can predict people’s actions. And indeed you can see that people routinely choose activities that deliver pain. Consider a distance runner, for example. The health benefits of running are largely achieved in the first few miles. The rest is a pain that confirms we are alive.

    You might argue that runners get a high, and they get great satisfaction from achieving a better time or finishing a marathon. I’m going to argue that the pleasures are side benefits. But first I will add one more condition to my theory: Everyone chooses the pain they like best. For the runner, muscle pain is the drug of choice. For a soldier in a volunteer army, it might be the fear of combat, or the harsh living conditions. For the entrepreneur, it might be the fear of failing. Everyone picks their own brand of pain. Sometimes we call that pain “challenge” to disguise it.

    So far, all of the activities I mentioned have identifiable pleasures. The soldier gets the feeling of pride in serving the country, veteran benefits, and sometimes the thrill of combat. The entrepreneur gets the satisfaction of doing things his own way, and with any luck, riches too. These examples are ambiguous because the participants get both pain and pleasure. And if these examples were the only ones we had, I would not have a theory. We also need examples where people clearly choose pain over pleasure. That would be the best evidence for the theory.

    Consider sports. Most sports are designed to guarantee failure for the majority of participants. In amateur tennis, if you join a league, and you start winning more than you lose, the computer rankings bump you up to the next level where you will mostly lose. You would think that a system designed to make participants feel like losers most of the time would become extinct, but it thrives.

    Golf is an entire game built around making something that is naturally easy – putting a ball into a hole – as difficult as possible, to guarantee plenty of losing. In football you’re normally thwarted every few yards. In baseball you strike out more than you hit. If winning were the payoff, sports would be a business where participants paid opponents to intentionally lose.

    Perhaps you think losing is necessary to make the winning feel good. But consider small kids. For them, life is so vivid that they need no reminder they are alive. Every second is a miracle. And little kids prefer activities with no losing whatsoever. Only the winning appeals to them. As we get older, and our sensation of living dulls, we seek the pain that confirms our existence. We seek sports to increase our losing.

    You might know people who continuously make choices that put them in some sort of danger, economically, socially, or physically. To you, their choices seem unwise. You assume that the people who make those choices get some sort of payoff you can’t understand. I think the payoff is the pain itself, and the attendant feeling of being alive.

    If sadness is your preferred pain, you watch sad movies. If muscle soreness is your preferred pain, you exercise vigorously. If economic uncertainty is your preferred pain, you pick fights with your boss. If stress is your preferred pain, you make sure you don’t leave enough time to do what you need to do.

    This theory came to me recently when a number of people asked me, in all seriousness, if I’ve gone insane. It seems to the reasonable observer that I’ve intentionally stirred up more trouble for myself in this blog than can be explained by the pursuit of pleasure. Where’s my payoff?

    If you look at most of my career choices, they have in common an unusually high risk of public criticism. I like the pleasures of success, but I need the pain of criticism. And because mine is a relatively rare form of preferred pain, it looks like insanity to the casual observer. To me, extreme sports look like a form of insanity. To each his own.

    Consider your own life choices as an adult. Do you have a preferred pain for feeling alive?

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