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The Hammer Theory of Pleasure and Pain: Rediscovering the Wisdom of Moderation

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

A remarkable theory proposed by psychological researcher Richard L. Solomon can help us understand how most acquired motives, like love, sensory cravings and thrill-seeking behavior, as well as needs for power, achievement and affiliation, operate by obeying empirical laws for addictions. His major article on what he calls the ‘opponent-process theory of acquired motivation’ has the subtitle, “The costs of pleasure and the benefits of pain.”

Solomon’s theory states that emotional states of the opposite valence occur following the ending of an initial emotional state. Thus the ending of one emotion (e.g., happiness) automatically brings on the start of the opposite emotion (e.g., sadness), and vice versa.1 Solomon quotes Plato in his dialogue Phaedo:

“How strange would appear to be this thing that men call pleasure! And how curiously it is related to what is thought to be its opposite, pain! The two will never be found together in a man, and yet if you seek he one and obtain it, you are almost bound always to get the other as well, just as though they were both attached to one and the same head. . . Wherever the one is found, the other follows up behind. So, in my case, since I had pain in my leg as a result of the fetters, pleasure seems to have come to follow it up.”

While it is neither widely known nor appreciated, what begins as a pleasure, if persisted in long enough, usually becomes a pain; and what starts as a pain, if protracted, usually becomes a pleasure. Addictive behavior is a classic example of the former, while sado-masochistic behavior is a notable instance of the latter. Here’s an all-too-human portrait of the opponent-process theory in a laughable, although self defeating and destructive, case in point.

The Hammer Theory of Pleasure and Pain in Action

On a lazy, warm summer afternoon, you decide to relax in the backyard hammock with a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade and a favorite magazine or book you’ve been itching to read. Just as you become settled in, you hear, “AAH! OOU! EHH!” and so on. Besides these noises disturbing your idyll serenity, you become increasingly curious. Peeping your head over the hedge in the direction the sounds seem to be coming from, you notice your neighbor’s garage door being open and him sitting at his worktable. You walk over and pop your head in. Just then you hear him yell, “OUCH! GAAH!” as you notice him hitting his thumb with a heavy looking hammer.

Your shock is palpable as you wonder about your neighbor’s sheer number of gray cells and intelligence in general. Taking note of the sorry condition of his thumb and out of genuine human compassion you urgently address him saying, “Jim! What are you doing? I know it’s none of my business, but what on God’s green earth are you hitting yourself with that hammer for?”

Slowly turning toward you, with giant tears running down his face, your neighbor is unable to speak. A moment or two longer he seems to have entered an ecstatic state as shown by the blissful radiance on his face. Now you are thoroughly disturbed and even more confused by all that you’ve witnessed. Somehow your neighbor Jim finds the wherewithal to put his lips together and speaks: “It feels SOOO GOOD when I stop.”

****

Solomon views his theory as a puritan approach in social philosophy given his hypothesizing the presence of psychological mechanisms to modulate, temper and moderate emotions. 1 A wise policy in life indeed. Repeated pleasures lose their pleasure and make one vulnerable to new suffering, while repeated painful events lose their unpleasantness over time and make one more available to new pleasure. In this context feelings are paradoxical.

Aiming for mid-range intensity for both pleasure and pain works best most of the time for all concerned. Shakyamuni Buddha and Aristotle among many others have professed the wisdom of moderation over the ages. Psychological research of what is termed the “Wundt curve” and recent research by Berlyne offers support for a singular conclusion: the most pleasing stimuli are experienced at moderate levels of arousal.2

References

1. Richard L. Solomon, American Psychologist, 35, 8, 1980, pages 691-712.

2. D. E. Berlyne’s approach is summarized in Michael Kubovy, “On the Pleasures of the Mind.” In Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, & Norbert Schwarz (Eds.) Well-being: The Foundation of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999, pages 134-154, reference: pages 139-142; Wundt Curve also referred to in Paul Rozin, “Preadaptation and the Puzzles and Properties of Pleasure.” In same volume, pages 109-133, reference: page 129.

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