The hedonic principle refers to the foundational motivation force of human life, specifically approaching pleasure and avoiding pain. Most motivation theories in psychology begin with the hedonic principle. Accordingly, our daily choices typically center around minimizing negative affect and maximize positive affect. E. Tory Higgins wrote, “from the ancient Greeks, through 17th- and 18th-century British philosophers, to 20th-century psychologists, this hedonic or pleasure principle has dominated scholars’ understanding of people’s motivation” (1997). Perhaps, since this is such a foundational principle in psychology, it is worth our time to better understand the history and impact of the hedonic principle.
We find shades of the hedonic principle throughout human history beginning with early philosophical thought. Aristippus (435–366 BCE) and Epicurus (341–270 BCE), both preached that pleasure was the ultimate good. While Aristippus emphasized physical pleasures, Epicureans promoted a holistic view that included serenity, a sense of belonging, and overall well-being. Plato (428-348BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) also contributed with early contributions to the hedonic principle. Overall, they both held the a holistic view of pleasure. However, they each had a slightly different focus. Plato promoted life balance of “the rational, emotional, and appetitive parts of the soul” (iResearch.net, 2016). Aristotle’s version of hedonia centered around his term eudaimonia, which means pleasure derived from a virtuous and fulfilling life.
Throughout modern history variations of the hedonic principle appears. Sigmund Freud referred to it as the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle was a fundamental part of Freud’s psychoanalytical psychology. T. Franklin Murphy wrote that “the underlying principle is that instinctual urges create a tension (or instability), motivating action to immediately satisfy the urge to regain stability” (2022). Basically, the theory suggests that when environments thwart immediate needs that promote pleasure or prevent pain our bodies physically react, motivating action to regain a homeostatic balance. Accordingly, we move to obtain the object that we perceive will bring us pleasure or defend against any threats we perceive will result in pain.
Benefits of Pleasurable Emotions
Satisfying our hedonic drives to encourage positive emotions has many benefits. Research suggests that positive emotions has an undoing effect on the impact of stress on the body. Positive emotions also encourage exploration and learning. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is a staple ingredient for the modern positivity movement.
Complexity and the Hedonic Principle
The principle is quint in its simplicity. However, life is not simple. The purity of the principle is muddied with the complexity of life.
Choices often are not easily divided into pleasure and pain. Most decisions involve trade-offs and competitive demands. Our time and resources are limited. We must decide between activities and pursuits, each with their own complex bundle of pleasure and pain. As a result, we must sacrifice the pursuit of some things that may bring pleasure or prevent pain so we can pursue something that we perceive as a better option. We prioritize. Murphy wrote, “achieving balance in the torrential storms of demands only succeeds from attentive oversight. We must constantly monitor, evaluate and re-balance time spent on hobbies, careers, children, and rest” (2018).
Another complexity, confusing simple motivational drives is time. Our biological impulsive needs seeking pleasure or dodging pain often focus on the present, ignoring long term consequences. Catherine D. Rawn and Kathleen D. Vohs wrote, “impulses have ‘strong incentive value’ that is hedonic and prepares the person to go toward the arousing stimulus (2016, Kindle location 11,009). Sander L. Koole, Lotte F. Van Dillon and Gal Shepps explain that “hedonic needs are invariably oriented toward a positive hedonic balance in the immediate present” (2016, Kindle location 1,000). However, many of our greatest human achievements require sacrificing immediate pleasures for more rewarding benefits in the future. This requires we delay immediate gratification to obtain long term objectives.
When Negative Emotions Seem Appropriate
Positive emotions are not always the appropriate response to life events. Sadness, anger, and even guilt serve a purpose. They motivate appropriate action for the situation, most of the time. Certainly, sometimes our emotions become maladaptive, arousing unsuitable emotions for the situation. Instead of chasing pleasure or avoiding pain, we may, at times allow a discomforting emotions to linger.
Under certain conditions we allow discomforting emotions. Research found that “people recognize various personal benefits that can result at time from feeling less positive or more negative affect, including enhancing their own group and derogating out-groups, performing better on instrumental tasks, helping attain their goals, and seeking empathy after relationship failure” (2022). There is nothing like a good ‘sad’ song after a break-up. The sadness of loss contributes to the integration of the experience.
Regulation of Emotions
Successful living requires we regulate some impulses pushing us to satisfy immediate pleasures or avoid momentary discomfort. Dylan D. Wagner and Todd F. Heatherton wrote “we are able to take the time to read dry academic chapters when we could be running around in a hedonistic frenzy, smoking, drinking, or gorging ourselves on the chocolate opulence to be found at the nearest supermarket is a testament to our ability to regulate our appetitive desires” (2016, Kindle location 1,644). For the most part, we aren’t motivated by the work itself, although sometimes we enjoy it. For example, I don’t enjoy every “dry academic” book I read. However, I push myself through the material because I enjoy the presenting the information in an article such as this. Basically, I make a trade-off of enduring present moment boredom for a future sense of accomplishment and self-actualization.
We often pass on momentary pleasures, such as watching a basketball game or eating a chocolate cake, because we can envision the possibility of greater pleasure or greater security in future. We regulate the emotional impulse to act in the present for something better in the future. I refer to this as future oriented thinking.
A Few Closing Thoughts
The hedonic principle is a valuable start to understanding human motivation. However, not all behavior can be understood from the chasing pleasure, avoiding pain framework. Some behaviors are straight-up maladaptive to these primary goals. In these cases, we need to dig a little deeper into the complexity of human behavior to understand the odd workings of the human mind.
iResearch.net (2016). Hedonic Theory. Published 10-20-2016. Accessed 4-16-2023
Higgins, E. (1997). Beyond Pleasure and Pain. American Psychologist,52(12), 1280-1300.
Koole, Sander L.; Van Dillon, Lotte F.; Shepps, Gal (2016). The Self regulation of Emotion. In Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Editors Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeisterr. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition
Lin, S., Reich, T., & Kreps, T. (2022). Feeling Good or Feeling Right: Sustaining Negative Emotion After Exposure to Human Suffering. Journal of Marketing Research, OnlineFirst, 1
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Pleasure Principle. Published 9-2-2022. Accessed 4-16-2023
Murphy, T. Franklin (2018). Prioritizing Life’s Demands. Published 4-14-2018. Accessed 4-16-2023
Rawn, Cathleen D.; Vohs, Kathleen D. (2016). When People Strive for Self-Harming Goals Sacrificing Personal Health for Interpersonal Success. In Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Editors Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeisterr. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition
Wagner, Dylan D.; Heatherton, Todd F. (2016). Giving in to Temptation The Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience of Self-Regulatory Failure. In Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Editors Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeisterr. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.