From a very young age we are taught a very specific understanding of behavior; of what is socially acceptable, and what is not, and the consequences thereof – specifically pain and pleasure. When we behave well we are rewarded, and when we misbehave we are punished. Which is to say, when we behave we experience pleasure, and when we do not we experience pain. For most people this equates to a very specific set of correlations – pain being punishment, and pleasure being reward. And that is how most of the world’s cultures function.
However, if we delve a little bit deeper, we find that this view of behavioral conditioning is entirely backward. Pema Chodron was absolutely correct when she wrote, “Pain is not a punishment. Pleasure is not a reward.” They’re not. At least not in the traditional sense of those words. You see, because being punished is often a painful experience, people go through that experience and conclude that pain IS punishment. And likewise in regard to pleasure and reward. But if we look at the evolutionary necessity of pain and pleasure as mechanisms of survival, we see that this not true. Pain is used as punishment because it works strongly, and on a deep psychological level as a deterrent. And pleasure is only used as reward because it works similarly as reinforcement. Both pain and pleasure evolved as behavioral motivators.
Before punishment ever existed as a social, culture, or judicial construct, pain emerged as an internal warning system for the brain and body. Our brains and bodies evolved to survive. Pain is just another survival mechanism; one of the most valuable we have. Pain helps us recognize hazardous situations, and compels us to seek and/or create a safe solution. Pain alerts us to things that are dangerous to our physical, psychological, and/or emotional health. Pain tells us when something is not right, and motivates us to fix it. That is the primary function of pain – motivating us to alleviate the pain; to leave the painful situation; to remove the source of the hurt; to care for, protect, and better ourselves.
Pleasure is much the same. When we encounter a hazardous situation, the brain signals our nerves with pain to let us know, “This is bad!” Similarly, pleasure developed to let us know, “This is good.” When we experience something that is good for us, is beneficial to our health and survival, the brain releases chemicals that make us feel good. By experiencing pleasure, we are then motivated to continue that behavior or experience.
But this is only enough when solely interacting with our environment. When we begin to interact with each other, something interesting happens. You see pain and pleasure motivate us for ourselves. They are selfish and internal drives that force us to look out for US. When we go beyond ourselves and seek to interact with others (which is essential in order to thrive) the rules change, and we quickly advance beyond simple healthy versus dangerous behaviors. Nature only demands that we respond to our own needs. Society demands that we consider our own needs as well as those of others, and balance the two for the benefit of all. In order to function as a society and a culture, we then require a more subjective idea of acceptable behavior.
Thus, when a person does something “bad” – that is to say, something that could harm themselves, another person, or the society at large – we rely on negative reinforcement to decrease that behavior. And likewise, when we want to encourage a desirable behavior, we rely on positive reinforcement. Pain and pleasure only became the default means of behavioral reinforcement in society because they are pre-existing and supremely effective behavioral motivators.
However, over time we have forgotten how pain serves us, and learned instead to equate it only with punishment. We have learned that if we behave well enough, if we never do anything “bad” that we will never experience pain (punishment). Thus we believe, however erroneously, that pain can be avoided altogether if we are simply “good enough”. So now when we are forced to experience pain, we question what we have done to deserve it, rather than searching for the cause and the solution. Instead of seeking and confronting the source of the pain, we seek only an end to it – any end to it. This is how negative coping behaviors arise.
Pain and pleasure are the primary motivators of human behavior. Therefore, when a person is in pain, when a person is suffering, they will seek out any way possible to end that suffering. And likewise, when a person experiences extreme pleasure they will seek out any way possible to prolong or repeat that pleasure – particularly in response to the aforementioned suffering. Very few individuals participate in negative or destructive behaviors because they want to. More often than not, people perpetuate such behaviors in order to FEEL BETTER. Sex makes us feel better; shopping makes us feel better; alcohol makes us feel better; gambling, drugs, food makes us feel better… at least for a little while. All of these things make our lives more bearable in the moment. And so we live – moment to moment to moment – just surviving.
By understanding this, we can begin to understand the cycle of suffering in our lives and the lives of others. By looking at ourselves honestly and gently we can begin to identify the emotion driven, destructive coping behaviors in our lives. By acknowledging and radically accepting the pain we have felt and our own irrational beliefs about our pain we can begin to choose different, more effective behaviors. When we begin to view and respond to pain and pleasure as the healthy, natural, internal regulators that they are, we can begin to respond to life in ways that are more positively aligned with our dreams, values, and goals. By listening to our pain and pleasure as they occur, we can begin to make informed, purposeful choices that allow us to be motivated by pain and pleasure, instead of trapped by it. Instead of reacting from an emotion driven mind, we can make the decision to act deliberately in ways that are value based, goal oriented, and purpose driven to create a truly optimized and empowered life.