Devil on My Shoulder

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Remember those cartoons where a character is exhorted towards good by an angel on one shoulder while a tiny devil on the other shoulder tempts him or her towards evil? It turns out there are real motivational analogues to shoulder-angels and shoulder-devils, and knowing the difference between the two is not always so easy.

What drives behavior is perhaps the fundamental question of psychology and therapy. While the list of theoretical models seems endless, I’m beginning to find that almost all motivation can be divided into two very distinct, very different categories. Most importantly of all, one of these two kinds of motivations predicts long-term contentment and the other does not.

Hedonic Pursuit

“If it feels good, do it.” “Life is uncertain, so eat dessert first.” Sayings like these all reflect a pleasure-seeking motivation. Pleasure-seeking, or “hedonic pursuit,” encapsulates a huge swath of motivations. Merely by being alive, we are constantly bombarded by urges and longings: for food, sex, safety, comfort, and excitement, just to name a few. And there is nothing wrong with getting any and all of these needs met. The thing that makes hedonic pursuit hedonic is the focus on immediate wants and needs over any other concerns or even to the total exclusion of other concerns.

Don’t be fooled: not all hedonic pursuit is decadent or focused on vivid, sensual pleasures. Avoiding difficulty or discomfort is hedonic pursuit in a different form. Procrastination, avoiding difficult conversations, or lying on your couch instead of going to the gym are all ways of making feeling good in the moment the primary value.

Hedonic pursuit, as common as it is in our society, has a lot of problems. First, by my previous definition, hedonic pursuit is concerned primarily with short-term satisfaction of needs and wants. Long term consequences are off the table when hedonic pursuit is in the driver’s seat.

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Second, pleasure-seeking is emotionally-focused rather than cognitive. Hedonic pursuit doesn’t have to make sense, and all too often, it doesn’t.

Third, because hedonic pursuit is emotional rather than rational, it can go on below the level of conscious awareness. A person could be caught up in hedonic pursuit with little explicit awareness of why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Fourth, hedonic pursuit is self-centered. It’s about pursuing my pleasure, again without reference to anyone else. In the extreme, pleasure-seeking becomes antisocial: my needs get met no matter who else gets hurt.

Fifth is the fatal flaw of hedonic pursuit: it is endless and ultimately unsatisfying. Our brains’ basic wiring diagram ensures that the more a pleasure is experienced, the less satisfying it becomes over time. This pattern is easy to recognize in alcohol and drug addition, and yet any pleasure-seeking behavior done long enough and intensely enough, dulls the subjective feelings of reward and can lead to an ever-increasing cycle of craving and pursuit.

Values-Driven Action

If you turn hedonic pursuit on its head and reverse all five of the properties I described earlier, you arrive at a second kind of motivation, one I’ll call “values-driven action”. People tend to cringe when conversation turns to “values” because people so often associate values with specific moral codes imposed by distinct cultures and religions. However, I want to use “values” to mean any systematic accounting for what attitudes and actions lead to well-being or suffering, without regard to specifics of any one value system.

So with that definition of “values” in mind, values-driven action firstly includes a sense of time. Doing what feels good now may be part of the equation, but how things will be later is also an area of concern.

Second, values-driven action is systematic, and therefore isolated to a greater or lesser extent from feelings and emotions. Because values are systematic, they have to “make sense” at some level.

Third, unlike hedonic pursuit, values-driven action is by necessity conscious. I might grudgingly admit that some people soak up their value system by osmosis from their culture and upbringing, yet I believe the best and most robust value systems are those that are examined consciously.

Fourth, just about every value system I know pays some reference to other people. Values-driven action is pro-social and includes the needs and wants of others as well as one’s own.

Fifth, just about all value systems have something to say about moderation, and how to enjoy pleasures without becoming mired in the whirlpool of hedonic pursuit. Also, there is a separate pleasure that comes from living out one’s deepest beliefs about what is good and right, and this enjoyment does not seem to erode in the same way pleasure-seeking does.

Just as living a life oriented towards hedonic pursuit does not always look like a non-stop party, choosing values-driven action does not automatically imply joining a monastery and swearing off all earthly enjoyments. In fact, I’d argue that pleasure is among the best arguments for the value-driven life. Value-driven action is best described as making the conscious decision to put off immediate gratification for long-term well-being not only in yourself, but in those you love.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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