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The Full Mind Weigh™ to Lifelong Weight Management, a program of the Institute for Lifelong Weight Management – teaching you the psychological and emotional skills you need to keep the weight off forever!

The Pain-Pleasure Principle and Weight Loss Maintenance

All living beings, from single-celled organisms to human beings, are naturally inclined to seek pleasure and to avoid experiencing pain. We ultimately make the decision to do (or not do) anything based on our desire to either obtain some form of pleasure or avoid some form of pain. As we go through each day we make countless decisions, either consciously or unconsciously. As we make each decision about what to do and what not to do, we are asking and answering the pleasure vs. pain question. This applies to simple as well as complex or life-changing decisions.

Some of the greatest thinkers throughout history taught that avoiding pain is a more powerful motivator than the desire for obtaining pleasure:

“The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.” – Aristotle

“The art of life is the art of avoiding pain; and he is the best pilot, who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset.” – Thomas Jefferson

Decades of scientific research have confirmed that people are more motivated to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. In fact, avoiding pain is approximately 2.5 times more of a motivator than seeking pleasure is. So when we consider a goal that is important to us, we may be discouraged by our thoughts of how difficult it’s going to be. We are going to think less about the benefits of reaching the goal, and more about the challenges of the journey to get there.

Sometimes, clients will tell me that maintaining their weight loss is too much work – it takes time and energy to exercise; it takes time and effort to prepare healthy foods; it takes effort to weigh and measure foods; it takes time and effort to engage in self-monitoring; and it’s painful to give up comfort foods – to say nothing of the mental energy it sometimes takes to deal with other people’s reactions to the changes they’re making in their lives. These clients are not focused on the long-term benefits (both physical and emotional) of maintaining a healthy weight for life. Their thoughts about the effort involved outweigh any thoughts about the benefits.

However, a different approach can be more effective for people who struggle with sustaining motivation. They can motivate themselves to maintain a healthy weight for life by associating more pain to the idea of regaining than they do to the effort required for maintenance. When our assessment of the pain associated with regaining outweighs our assessment of the pain associated with maintenance, then (given the research), we are going to be more motivated to engage in behaviors associated with successful maintenance.

Remember, we are instinctively motivated by the desire to avoid pain. So, we need to imagine the pain that we would experience by not engaging in these behaviors. Imagining the pain that we would feel is a great motivator to take action. Then, as an added measure, we can also imagine the pleasure that we would experience by making these choices and being successful as a result. We can control the pain-pleasure scale in our favor. We can motivate ourselves by associating massive pain with inaction and great pleasure with action.

Instead of allowing our unconscious decisions to dictate our actions or inactions, we can choose to think clearly and to be fully aware. We can choose to magnify in our minds the pain we will experience if we fail to act. And we can magnify in our minds the pleasure we will experience if we take the actions that we know deep down will ultimately serve our long-term goals.

How does thinking about the pain associated with inaction versus the pain associated with action affect your level of motivation for long-term weight loss maintenance – or your level of motivation for any other goal that is important to you? Please share your thoughts with me and with other readers by commenting on this post.

With your continued health in mind,

Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.
Director, The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management
Creator, The Full Mind Weigh™ to Lifelong Weight Management

The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh™ is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.