Avoiding Pain Actually Hurts

We as humans tend to avoid situations that cause pain. This is true for all different kinds of pain including physical and emotional pain. Now, common wisdom says that we should avoid pain at all cost because it is not pleasant. However, in some instances we can all agree that it’s ok to feel some pain on the short term in order to have a positive outcome that lasts for a long time. For example, most parents are willing to vaccinate their children because even though children cry whenever they get a shot, this short term pain is offset with the piece of mind of not getting a particular illness in the future.

The problem is that although we understand that sometimes we need to take some pain in order to get some gains we don’t act on it. I look at myself and my friends and we have a particularly hard time ending bad friendships (short term pain) because it’s just easier to keep hanging out with the same people and not make new friends (long term gain). The same applies for career choices. Most people that are not happy with their jobs choose to stay in their jobs rather than do what they really want to do because they are avoiding the pain that comes with uncertainty.

Tversky and Kahneman famously outlined the relationship between how we evaluate gains and losses in their 1979 paper on Prospect Theory. The fundamental premise of their model is that when people are evaluating alternatives that involve risk (or uncertainty) people feel that losses hurt more than gains (everything else being equal). Therefore, humans tend to be risk averse when making decisions that involve risk.

The Takeaway

Now how do all this theories affect my life? Well, if I understand that most people are willing to take a huge discount on their full potential in the present to not feel the pain that comes with uncertainty, then I should actively seek opportunities that might be painful in the short term but will allow me to fulfill my full potential in the long term.