Maximum Motivation

Sentient beings, including humans, are mostly motivated by the principle of pain and pleasure. I want to add two variables to that formula, the belief in one’s capability and the perceived pain of taking action.

Motivation = Actual or Anticipation of Pain + Anticipation of Pleasure + Belief in One’s Capability – The Perceived Pain of Taking Action

If the amount of motivation exceeds the threshold of resistance to take action, the person takes action.

The interpretation of this formula in humans is more complicated than animals because unlike animals, we can feel pain and pleasure from abstract concepts.

A person can make great effort to work on a piece of art or play a musical instrument because they derive pleasure from them. They can also sacrifice their life for their country because of the pain they feel when they perceive their country to be in danger.

Pain Is a Greater Source of Motivation than Pleasure

Pain is a greater source of motivation than pleasure, and the exact ratio seems to be 5-to-1. This is reported in multiple areas of applied psychology.

An average investor feels five times more pain when they lose a certain amount compared to the pleasure they derive from the profit of the same amount. A basic leadership rule is that an instance of critical feedback has to be balanced with five instances of positive feedback to offset its effects.

The 5-to-1 ratio stems from our negativity bias. We tend to see the world as more negative than it actually is. This helped our ancestors to survive in the wilderness, but it doesn’t serve us anymore. We can overcome our negativity bias by training our mind to be more optimistic.

When you look at the formula, and when you consider the 5-to-1 rule, you’ll reach an interesting conclusion. Increasing your perception of pain will increase your motivation much more than increasing your anticipation of pleasure. This is the dark side of motivation.

The Belief in One’s Capabilities

In some cases, the pain or pleasure might not be sufficient to trigger someone to take action. A person also needs to believe that they are capable of avoiding the pain or accomplishing the goal that would give them pleasure.

I might know that building a successful business would give me pleasure, but if I don’t believe in my capability of achieving that goal, I won’t tolerate the pain of taking action toward it.

We can cultivate a belief in our capabilities by setting realistic goals and actually achieving them, or by breaking down our big hairy audacious goals into milestones and achieving those milestones, in other words, by putting our goals into perspective.

The Connection between Pain and Pleasure

Even though pain and pleasure seem to be distinct phenomena, they are tightly connected to each other. The absence of something that gives you pleasure can give you great pain. That might be something inessential like alcohol or recreational drugs. The alleviation of a certain pain can give you pleasure.

I’d say be careful of which pleasures you allow to your life because they can easily turn into pain. Don’t be too afraid of pain because it can lead you to greater pleasure, or more accurately to greater satisfaction.


When our sensations of pain and pleasure and our belief in our capabilities exceed the pain of taking action, we take action. This is the formula of motivation.

In the formula of motivation, pain plays five times greater role than pleasure due to our negativity bias. Therefore, anticipating or feeling pain is a greater motivation than the anticipation of pleasure.

Believing in our capability of achieving our goals to alleviate our pain or to reach pleasure also increases our motivation. We can cultivate that belief by setting goals that we can achieve and actually achieving them.

Pain and pleasure are tightly connected to each other. The lack of what gives us pleasure gives us pain. Acting despite the perceived pain and reaching our goals gives us satisfaction.

In a nutshell, we can optimize our motivation by regulating or perception and anticipation of pain and pleasure, and by maximizing our belief in our capabilities.

Burak Bilgin
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.