Pleasure and Pain

Do you like chilli? Yep? Turns out you and 2 billion other people also like the sensation of something burning your mouth. And in that lies something to help us at work when the going gets tough…but first, let’s talk effort.


Let’s face it. Work is often hard work. Y’know what I mean?


Sure, there’s the enjoyable work we do where a combination of autonomy, challenge and the pursuit for a worthy goal leaves us wrecked after a day, but happy. Content, even. 


But it’s important to define that we’re talking good-wrecked, not bad-wrecked here. It’s that feeling of exhaustion mixed with fulfilment. A wonderfully satisfying feeling, one I refer to as the ‘kelpie-dog-smile’ effect.*


But what of that time when hard work is just plain hard? No fulfilment, just exhaustion. Is there a way to navigate this or change it to gain a greater sense-of-worth that simply energy drain?


Turns out there is some recent research coming out of the University of Pennsylvania that gives us an interesting new way to look at hard work. Paul Rozin and his team have been studying reverse hedonism, or more specifically, benign masochism; a delightful term where people derive enjoyment from things that are actually painful. Eating chilli, hard exercise, even a deep tissue massage are all activities we can engage in that are inherently painful, but we can derive pleasure from. Incidentally, I’ll be talking about this very thing at The Future of Leadership in Melbourne in three weeks time on the 6th of September. You should come. If you’re in Melbs, then it’s a no brainer. If you’re interstate and not been to Brissy or Sydney, then heck! What’re you doing? Get on it. A plane. Get your tickets here.


So now you’re signed up to to the Future of Leadership, back to our discussion at hand. Can we apply these benign masochism principles to work? Can a painful work task actually become pleasurable? Quite possibly. Let’s look at a few factors.


It has to contain a sense of safety

Rozin and his team found a key factor in achieving a reversal of hedonism (something going from pain to pleasure) was establishing a sense of safety. Whilst that vindaloo curry is crazy-hot, the moment you realise it won’t kill you, it starts to be come more enjoyable. Your first run in training for a marathon, you literally think you will die — but a few weeks in, you now can start to enjoy the runs. We also need to ensure this principle is followed at work. It can’t be life and death. As a leader you have a key role to remind people in busy times that the game of work is best played as such — a game.


Chunk it down

Pretty simple really. If a task has enormity, you’ll likely panic, which brings back the whole ‘holy-crap-i-might-just-die!’ reaction. The work then becomes painful. But when we break it into manageable chunks, then it opens up the progress principle and assists in the motivation of even the most mind-numbing of tasks. This is where taking on a giant pile of data entry or waging war on your inbox can be liberating rather than debilitating. 


Disassociate yourself

Some call it the ‘helicopter view’ others call it taking a step back. I call it ‘get some f*#ing perspective!’ Hmmm, mebbe others have a better use of this english-stuff than I do? It all means the same thing though. That task that you’re driving yourself crazy about…the thing that is causing untold pain…well, it’s really not that big a deal is it? In the grand scheme of things, you sucking it up and grinding out 2 hours worth of data entry isn’t going to rate on a world scale of heartbreak or hardship. Take a break and gain some perspective…the easiest, cheapest way to do this is physically remove yourself from the environment and engage in a little bit of mindfulness. Take your time over lunch. Enjoy that coffee rather than gulping it down. 


Part of work is hard work. That’s not in dispute. But what is up for negotiation is how you frame and approach the less-than-enjoyable work. Simply readjusting your focus can result on turning pleasure into pain.


*Y’know when you have a working dog (like a kelpie) and they seem at their most content after a hard days work? That’s the kelpie-dog-smile. Doing something they were bred to do. However, put that same working dog in a small confined space for 8 hours and they positively have evil in their eyes…