Students of human behaviour have long known what motivates us. Most of us will do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. we’ll quit smoking when we’ve got lung cancer rather than doing it to have sweeter breath or more lung capacity and money. we’ll lose weight as a prerequisite for knee replacement surgery, not so we can dance the night away. we’ll endure the hell of divorce rather than go to couple’s therapy to save our marriage.
Maybe those are extreme examples. But how about these smaller pleasure-pain choices: Declutter for aesthetics versus spending weeks of our lives looking for keys and unpaid bills. File our taxes early versus paying penalties and interest when we procrastinate. Get free floss and a toothbrush at our annual checkup versus extraction, root canal, and fillings when we stay away for years.
Somehow we are conditioned to take the path of least resistance, to choose the easy over the hard. We believe the laws of the universe don’t apply to us. We live in denial of the realities of our financial circumstances and the state of our health. We’ve forgotten or chosen to ignore the moral of Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper fritters away his summer having fun while the ant is toiling away storing food for the winter. When the grasshopper faces starvation, he sees the pain of his chosen behaviour.
The deadbeat grasshopper is just like the lazy farm animals in the Little Red Hen folk story. The animals refuse to help the hen plant, thresh, harvest, and bake the bread. Then, of course, they are shut out of sharing the rewards she reaps from her efforts.
Pain, when we finally encounter it, has a way of grabbing our attention. At that point we either learn the implicit lesson or look for someone or something to blame. Of course, doing the latter ensures that the pain will continue to repeat itself until we learn said lesson.
Occasionally some of us turn pain into a mega-hit and earn worldwide acclaim. Here I’m thinking of virtually any song from Adele’s 21 album. Or Gotye’s ?Somebody That I Used to Know.? Adele’s phenomenal success is borne of a broken heart and betrayal of love. Anyone who’s experienced the same heartache can identify with the truth of her lyrics and the powerful emotion behind her masterful delivery. When I asked the girl at HMV when Adele’s next album would appear, the quick answer was 10 years. What? She’s in a happy relationship, so she doesn’t have any material was the flip reply.
That got me thinking. We do tend to focus more on our hurts than on our blessings; our pain versus our pleasure. Oh sure, there are songs celebrating precious love, but are they chart-toppers?
The moral of this story is to avoid pain by making the right choice or learn from it if you can’t escape it. Or else get really good at songwriting, from where I sit.
Hazel Anaka’s first novel is Lucky Dog. Visit her website for more information or follow her on Twitter @anakawrites.