What Motivates Us More? The Pursuit of Pleasure or Avoidance of Pain?

Psychologists told us first – and then motivational speakers quickly shared the news: Studies show that we will do more to avoid a perceived pain than we will to pursue a perceived pleasure. 

So when my friend and colleague, the brilliantly insightful, wise and funny motivational speaker, Kelly Swanson, began sharing her journey to a healthier life via several blogposts, I REALLY tuned in on the one where she listed the ways she was going to motivate herself to do what she basically did not WANT to do.  She listed all the AMAZING benefits (pleasures) that she would get when she stuck with her program of healthier eating and exercise. 

Movies And I can tell you first hand that this system worked for me when I was 25 pounds overweight, unemployed, freshly single, 46 years old, no money, no income, no burial plot, nada. I made a movie in my mind of this healthy, lean, vibrant, GORGEOUS woman (me) with boundless energy, smiling this HUGE happy smile, in sexy fabulous clothes – enjoying the career of my dreams. I saw my son beaming with pride when he introduced me to people – SO proud of the person I had become. And I saw me in the most loving, amazing relationship with a healthy, smart, funny man who loved me unconditionally. This movie was a frickin' Oscar Winner! I played it every night in my head in full Dolby Sound 3-D High Def Technicolor! I let it wash over me and soak into my DNA and inspire me! And it really did!

Ah, but the OTHER movie I played daily – was even MORE motivating. In that movie I saw myself making no changes, doing exactly what I was doing then. Hanging out on the sofa, bemoaning my outcast fate, watching television, eating whopper doodles and french fries and hoping things would change – telling myself the whole time "Well, it's not THAT bad."  And then, in my movie, I walked these behaviors out 5, 10 and 20 years – to see what my life would look like – in all the domains of my life (friends, family, career, health, happiness) if I made NO changes. Here's what the movie looked like:

In 5 years it was bad. I'd gained another 25 pounds. I was flabby and fat. I had high blood pressure. I had stomach and back issues. I had a menial job paying minimum wages that I hated. I had a few other fat miserable friends, but NO love life. I LOOKED 20 years older than I was. And STILL I told myself, "Well, it's not THAT bad."

In 20 years, though, it was seriously that bad. I was on disability. I had gained another 50 pounds and now was obese, had heart issues, serious back problems and couldn't breathe well. Walking from the refrigerator to the television was hard work. I was on food stamps. I had lost my job. My hair was gray and stringy and scary looking. All my clothes came from Goodwill. I had no friends, lived in a trailer and had a really really old rusted out car that continually broke down. Happiness? My only happiness came from a box of donuts. I was sad, bitter, angry and cried a lot.  NO ONE wanted to be around me.  

But in this movie, nothing was more painful that what happened with my relationship to my son – the single most important human being in my life. The one I would have taken a bullet for. Oh he still loved me, but he was embarrassed by me. I was a drain on him. He had to give up so much of his life to try and help me when I couldn't walk or get to the doctor. He had to pay for my medical bills, drive me around, buy my groceries. He was deeply deeply disappointed in me, I could tell. AND, and here was the most horrific thing of all, he was starting to let himself go. He was starting to eat more junk food and blame others and think he'd gotten a bad deal somewhere along the line. In other words, he was turning into me. 


WHAM! When I got to this part of my movie, I was like, "NO WAY! NO DAMNED WAY!!! Get me to the gym! Pour that crappy soda down the drain! I will NOT let that happen to my son!!!!!"

And when I needed serious motivation – when I woke up in the morning and didn't feeeeeeel like going for a walk, I would lie there in bed and play that scary pain movie in my head. In the same glorious High Def, 3-D clarity – and it got me up and moving every single time. EVERY time.

It's now (almost exactly) those 20 years later. And I am actually LIVING my pleasure movie in every single aspect. But I have to say, I'm not sure that just playing that happy movie would have gotten me here. I deeply believe that it was the pain movie that more consistently and powerfully motivated me to take action.

How about you? Up for a little script writing? It could be an Oscar winner, you know.

hfm_1632Linda would love to help your audience members
write THEIR Oscar Winning Movies! Call 

941-927-4700 to book her as the
conference keynote speaker for your next event! 




Motivational Speaker Linda Larsen, CSP has been described by meeting planners and audiences as "hysterically funny," and "riveting." Known for her ability to connect on an authentic and emotional level with audiences, her spontaneous sense of humor, and her engaging and powerful stories, Linda is passionate about sharing ideas to help people live their finest, best, and most productive lives. Her riveting and true story of being kidnapped and held hostage at gunpoint by an escaped convict, and the strategies she used to escape, will give people the tools THEY need to rise above any of life's toughest challenges, to communicate more effectively with THEIR difficult person, and to find creative solutions to THEIR problems. To book motivational speaker, Linda Larsen: 941-927-4700

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  1. Bravo!!!! And this is EXACTLY what motivated me to change, Ms. Linda. YOU taught me to see what my path would look like if I stayed on this road – versus what it would look like if I took a different road. I already thought my path was great. I already like my movie. But now I've seen that there could a HIGH-DEF version of this movie I never thought about!!! Wahoo!! I can't wait. You rock. And so does this post. Going to share this brilliant piece of writing right now.

  2. Man! This is beautifully thought out and extrememly important stuff!  My avoidance of pain movie is a remake of what my dear Dad went through with 20 years of convelescence.  That still serves as a powerful reminder to take care of myself every day in order to avoid having a stroke or any other disease brought on by an unhealthy lifestyle.  My pursuit of pleasure is rewarded after every workout with those little "feel-good" hormones circulating throughout my body!  The bigger pleasure is setting a good example for my two sons to steer them to a healthy future. So far so good on that score I'm happy to report!  You are right, Linda, in appreciating our wonderful support team in this awesome group of motivational speakers.

  3. Loved this heartfelt truth. Your movies, both painful and positive, reminded me of how each of us need to find our own way to stay on the journey. My major changes have always started from pain, and my own daughters were a major catalyst for much of my healing. Beautiful, inspiring blog.

  4. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post!  You took a simple visualization and went all rambo with it and it was impactful.  Thanks for this – I really appreciate the detail of the pain….I could feel it!!! Thanks for this Linda.

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