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Shifting from pain points to pleasure points
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
I have recently come across a few ideas from the world of activism (black feminism to be precise), productivity, work, and marketing that when linked together provide an amazingly disruptive, new, foundational way of building a better world. Let me make the bold statement that the following will blow your mind, but at the same time make so much sense, and ultimately help you build a better world.
Let me actually start with the core punchline:
The organizing principle of the modern world is pain.
To build a world that is truly sustainable and just, pleasure needs to replace pain and become the new organizing principle of our future.
A very practical translation of this is the following:
To ‘sell’ a sustainable future to the people, we need to show them the pleasure that comes with that future rather than the pain that comes with it. From solving pain points to solving pleasure points.
Now, I have been interested and have actively pursued looking at and spotlighting the positives and opportunities of a sustainable and equitable future for quite a while now, but recently I’ve learned that this mind-shift from pain to pleasure is even more foundational and far-reaching than I have previously thought. And on top of that, it unlocks such a new way of looking at the world, of becoming happier or building a business. So let’s get into it!
Our World Is Built On Pain
“The organizing principle of the modern world is pain.
Avoiding it, yes. But also trading in it, taking refuge in it, and using it to justify our actions. Pain has so many uses. […]
We trade in pain when we use it to bargain for progress. We assume that the bigger the impact we want to have, the more dramatic the change, the more we have to suffer. Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t the depth of my sacrifice a measure of how much I care?
We take refuge in pain when we use it to hide from our problems. Pain is all-consuming, a powerful distraction from the things we don’t want to face. […]
We use pain to justify ourselves when there are no other excuses. Can’t you see I’m suffering? Can’t you see I’m at my very limit? […] As long as I am suffering, I am shielded from responsibility for the consequences of my actions.”
Using pain as the organizing principle of the modern world has lots of implications. Below I wanna quickly highlight a few and then show, quite practically, how those could be overcome if we used pleasure as the new organizing principle.
Work: One might not really like their job but endure the suffering anyway to enjoy the weekends or accumulate wealth and status.
Life Goals: The idea that one needs to grind, i.e. overcome a period of pain and suffering, to get to the next level, achieve one’s goals and be happy.
Marketing: Leveraging pain points (i.e. suffering) by telling people that the pain will finally end if they buy this new thing, thereby convincing people that they aren’t enough as they are.
Activism/Change: The idea that we can only create change and build a better world if we sacrifice something, if we forego the pleasures of life.
Okay! Let’s quickly explore each of these:
Work is Suffering » Work is Pleasure
This pain-driven behavior or ideology becomes pretty obvious when we look at the world of work. In a previous issue (An Economy of Suffering), I shared this amazing TikTok that asks whether the economy is basically just a system that trades suffering:
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A decade or maybe just a few years ago this TikTok may have been mostly comical with a splash of reality. But in today’s world, the sketch is becoming rather factual and that’s because more and more of the constraints on work keep on dissolving: working only in certain locations, on certain subjects, in certain ways, wearing certain clothes, using certain skills & tools, at certain times of the day, with a certain career trajectory and certain power structures. It’s all increasingly falling apart.
As I have highlighted in An Economy of Suffering, remote work has led to the act of work being stripped bare (no more fancy outfits, lunches with colleagues, watercooler conversations) while (mostly) white-collar jobs were suddenly branded as being “non-essential”. And while Gallup’s yearly surveys have since quite a while, with facts, already shown us that we - as portrayed in the TikTok above - actually did build a sort of economy of suffering (only 21% of global employees are engaged at work), the realization of that is only kicking in now.
That’s the actual reason why we see stuff like the Great Resignation, the Age of Anti-Ambition, Quiet Quitting, or the Anti-Work Movement popping up. Work has been stripped bare, unveiling that most of our current system of work is built on the idea of suffering, on pain. Consequently, people are either giving in (i.e. quiet quitting, anti-ambition), giving up (i.e. great resignation), or rising up and demanding change (i.e. anti-work, 4-hour workweek, UBI).
Once you consider that pain or suffering is the foundation of our system of work, even our economy, it’s hard to unsee it as we use so many terms and phrases to mask this pain foundation and its historical origin:
Work hard, play hard
Work vs. leisure
Grinding (‘the daily grind’)
So all in all, I think what’s happening right now is that more and more people are beginning to question that pain element (or foundation) of work. I say “beginning”, but this movement has quite some history of course. For example, I’ve recently come across a look back at the quite well-known 4-Hour Workweek book by Tim Ferris which came out in 2007. Paul Millerd from the Boundless Substack writes:
“Yet, the deeper philosophical undercurrents [of the book] still push against our default culture:
Life doesn't have to be so damn hard. It really doesn't. Most people, my past self included, have spent too much time convincing themselves that life has to be hard, a resignation to 9-5 drudgery in exchange for (sometimes) relaxing weekends and the occasional keep-it-short-or-get-fired vacation.
This is the “work is suffering” script that many people are unconsciously running. If work is suffering and central, we can only do what life gives us after work is done.
This is what resonated so deeply for people like me and others. It made visible these hidden scripts and gave us permission to abandon them.”
// Solution: Productize Yourself
All of this also relates to another concept I have once already explored in From Corporation to Self-Actualization, namely the idea of productizing yourself, which describes a new approach to work where…
“…you want to figure out what you’re uniquely good at - or what you uniquely are (!!!) - and apply as much leverage as possible. So making money isn’t even something you do. It’s not a skill. It’s who you are, stamped out a million times.”
The crucial part here in reference to replacing pain with pleasure as the organizing principle of our world is the idea of focusing on “what you uniquely are”.
Lots of pain at work comes from being someone else. It’s only when we find or create a job in which we can truly be ourselves, that we realize how much time we actually lost or wasted trying to be (or become) someone else. And once your job is all about being you, becoming better at your job suddenly turns into becoming better at being you. Consequently, dualities such as work vs. life (or work-life balance) become completely redundant.
Oftentimes, suffering at work (the 79% of workers, globally, who are not engaged or actively disengaged at work according to Gallup) is being endured because of the promise of future happiness via retirement and having a good amount of savings or wealth. Here is a thought experiment to counter that:
How would your work-related decisions change if you cannot retire, nor take any vacations?
You could make it even more extreme and add: what if you could not accumulate any wealth? Now, there is actually more reality and truth to this thought experiment than one might think. If you are a young person and you see what’s happening in terms of crises around the world happening already right now and the inaction towards protecting one’s future, that hypothetical of “if you cannot retire, nor take any vacations, nor accumulate any wealth” suddenly isn’t so hypothetical any more…
No Pain, No Gain » Flow
This idea of pain being the organizing principle of the world also links to our relationship with productivity and life goals. As I said above, we have this idea that one needs to grind, i.e. overcome a period of pain and suffering, to achieve one’s goals. Success basically has to come from suffering. You want to gain muscles, be more fit and athletic, or learn a new language? Then you have to go through at least a period of suffering to get there. Or do you?
// Solution: Non-Self-Coercion & Flow
“‘Non-self-coercion’ is the conceptual distillation of several converging threads of what you could call productivity criticism.”
“[Non-self-coercion’ is about transitioning from forcing yourself to choosing what you want to do.”
Non-self-coercion basically says “just do what you intrinsically want to do”. That might sound very simple, but it actually isn’t, because in today’s world of overchoice and social competition it becomes evermore difficult for an individual to understand what they actually intrinsically want to do.
“People operating from a lifelong list of ‘shoulds’ have often completely lost touch with their intrinsic motivation.”
“When we reconnect with ‘why’ instead of juicing ourselves up with the dark motivators like fear, envy, and shame, we choose the active pursuit of something good over the reactive avoidance of something bad.”
Non-self-coercion is therefore all about self-awareness and -acknowledgment and consequently locking in life goals and hobbies that are driven by pleasure rather than pain.
“‘Pleasure is what allows us to make decisions aligned with our true selves.’
Unless we know what stirs us, what provokes a longing deep in our belly, on what basis can we make decisions about how to lead our lives? Until we know what we deeply, truly want, we are at the mercy of externally defined obligations, which keep us docile and obedient.”
Ideally, pursuing life goals and hobbies non-self-coercive then unlocks what happiness researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow state:
“Psychological Flow captures the positive mental state of being completely absorbed, focused, and involved in your activities at a certain point in time, as well as deriving enjoyment from being engaged in that activity.”
Flow is being ‘in the zone’, being involved with one’s whole self, fully intrinsically motivated. Everything feels effortless!
Want to learn more about non-self-coercion? Then have a look at this Non-Self-Coercive Productivity article.
“You Need More” Marketing » “You Are Enough” Marketing
Traditional marketing is all about convincing people that they are not enough.
“Buy this one thing and you’ll feel better. Oh and once you bought that, you can actually get a discount on another thing that will make you feel even more better.”
Traditional marketing is playing with the pain that comes with being an imperfect human and uses that (“let’s solve our customers’ pain points” )to strip people of their agency, and their ability to make meaningful, well-considered decisions for themselves.
// Solution: Non-Coercive Marketing
“Non-coercive marketing is a leap of faith, rooted in the idea that if you stop trying to control people, and encourage them to be their own authority, you can build positive sum relationships that lead to organic and mutually-enriching transactions.”
There are lots of elements to non-coercive marketing but two specific ones really showcase how it’s possible to replace pain with pleasure at the core of a new approach to marketing:
“Non-coercive marketing is about creating customers who are both happy and empowered. […] An empowered customer is someone whose choice to transact comes not from insecurity, but from self trust. In other words, it's a ‘fuck yes’ decision for them, made from a place of wholeness.”
“As non-coercive marketers, we don't agitate insecurities or spin up new ones to make the sale. We strive to see the inherent enoughness of everyone, and speak directly to that part. That's at the core of how we enable empowered decisions—by speaking to people as if they are already enough, and giving them the time and space to start trusting that it's true.”
If you wanna learn more about this approach, check out Non-Coercive Marketing: A Primer which is also the source of the snippets above.
No Fridays For Future » Fridays For Future
“Activism is so often associated with pain and suffering; really dire, serious people insisting we have to suffer, to sacrifice, to protest, to forego so many of the sensual pleasures of life. […] People are already so overwhelmed and depressed, why would they want anything to do with such a movement?”
With so many new challenges and uncertainties thrown at us, we are in dire need of new, positive narratives. If pain is the organizing principle of the modern world then our visions and ideas of a better future must replace it with something new. Telling people that they need to suffer more (or maybe just for a little way) to be able to then live normally again or better, is the same narrative that has been around for decades, even centuries.
// Solution: Pleasure Activism
“We could use art to make the revolution so irresistible, so scintillating and exciting, that justice and liberation would be among the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet.”
Adrienne Maree Brown
Author of “Pleasure Activism - The Politics of Feeling Good”
When it comes to activism or changing the world, I believe one key part of replacing pain with pleasure as an organizing principle is to realize that pain and suffering are always serving someone or some system.
“Oppression makes us believe that pleasure is not something that we all have equal access to.”
“Self-preservation is an act of defiance in a world organized around pain.”
Linking back also to the quote on top of this issue by Camus, reframing sustainability, justice, or well-being as something driven by pleasure, rather than pain, becomes therefore in itself already an act of rebellion, an act of activism.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
And if we even link this back to what we explored in the work, life goals and marketing sections above – i.e. the importance of self-awareness, of knowing our true selves, our intrinsic motivations, and of being enough as we are –, this notion that we need to sacrifice something to create a better world or future suddenly falls completely apart. Because if we’re already living in a world organized by suffering then what we currently have or desire is detached from our actual intrinsic motivations, from our true selves, from what makes us truly happy. This means that giving it up is not an actual sacrifice but a first step toward reconnecting with one’s true desires.
Finally, as this is a reframing on such a foundational, deep narrative level, this is also really about building a completely new model which is exactly what is needed in today’s world. Because as Buckminster Fuller said:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
That’s it for this week!