Positive vs Negative Decisions

by Stephen Mills on July 7, 2009

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I think a very strong indication of where you are at in your life, growth, and well-being has to do with whether you are primarily making positive or negative decisions.  We humans will move away from and avoid pain and we will move towards and seek pleasure.  That’s the way we work.

You might decide not to touch a hot stove to avoid pain while you might choose to touch your partner to achieve pleasure.  The first is a negative decision and the second is a positive decision. There is huge difference between negative and positive decisions.  Which of the following are better life situations?

You have three job offers that all seem great and your dilemma is deciding which one is the best.  Or you have three job offers that will pay the bills but you’re not really excited about any of them.  You’re trying to figure out which one is the “best” (least worst).

You have offers from two different friends on a way to spend your Friday evening.  You can’t decide because they are both so exciting.  Or you have two offers from different friends on a way to spend your Friday evening and you are trying to figure out how to decline both because neither of them interest you.

The difference between the lives of people who are primarily making positive decisions (choosing pleasure) and those who are making negative decisions (avoiding pain) is the like the difference between night and day.  The former is a thriving life and the latter is merely a surviving life.

If your decisions are mostly about avoiding or reducing pain instead of increasing pleasure, then you are definitely not where you want and need to be.  Maximizing positive decisions is something I intend to be very conscious about in the future.  I’m not suggesting we can ever eliminate negative decisions from our lives.  It’s impossible.   I do think, however, that most people spend most of their lives making negative decisions, while a life of primarily positive decisions is very possible.

Even people who think they make positive decisions probably are not actually doing so much of the time.  When you compromise with your partner to get along you are actually making a negative decision.  You are avoiding the pain of conflict.  People don’t realize how many negative decision they make all day every day.  It’s that chronic background noise that’s always there.  It’s what everyone expects.  That’s just life.  Maybe so, but I have become convinced that it doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t think people are aware of this noise because it seems so normal.

When you are out in public with your children and they are acting up you are faced with multiple negative choices.  1) Do nothing and suffer (and force others to suffer with you).  2) Discipline your child and risk an escalating public battle.  3) Get out of the situation by leaving.

Once you are in that situation it’s too late.  All choices are negative.  You are attempting to reduce pain.  A much better alternative would be to avoid being in a situation where you are faced with these negative choices.  There are ways to greatly minimize those, and yes I raised a daughter and I have been there too!

I’m sure there is a better way.  Many years ago I also came to this same conclusion, but somehow I lost focus on it.  I fell into what Thoreau called our “lives of quiet desperation”.  I’ve decided to put myself back into a life situation where I am primarily making positive choices.  How about you?

In future articles I will be discussing ways to do this.  It will be around my Living Free theme I introduced a few days ago.  I’m considering putting these articles on their own blog, but I haven’t decided yet.  What do you think? Leave a comment below.


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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Dragos Roua July 8, 2009 at 12:49 am

Well, that’s something I can talk about. Seeking pleasure is not a goal for me. Enjoying life is. Enjoying life is not made from pleasure only.

I can touch my partner and have a good time with her, but at the same time I can touch a painful spot form an injury just to see it’s there, even if it’s painful. Pain and pleasure are not red lights or green lights, they are just feed-back. If I chose only one over another I will eventually compromise my feed-back system.

I truly think that enjoying life is something above pleasure or pain. And I do think we need both in order to experience the life fully.

As for positive and negative decisions, I would put them in a larger context: if it’s making me enjoy more of a life, then it’s a positive decision, even if it can cause some pain. To complete your example about the kid (as I do have these experiences a lot, I have a 3 year old) I always chose a direct confrontation in public. Do I feel bad? Yes. Does she feel frustrated? Of course. But are we both learning and growing through that experience? Certainly. Of course I could prevent these types of behavior, but I can’t prevent life, no matter how hard I try. At some point there will be situations in which you will feel bad, she will feel frustrated, but everybody will learn and grow. Learning and growing are the main reasons for being alive. Pleasure and pain are just building blocks of the whole experience, not the experience in itself.

Pain is part of life and I don’t take it as something bad. I don’t try to avoid it, because I think I will miss a lot of learning experiences. I do think pain and pleasure are just part of a feed-back mechanism and it’s up to the owner of the mechanism to decide which way should lean. In real life there is no white and black, there are nuances.

But I do look forward for more on that from you. As for moving these posts to another blog, I will be in favor of keeping them there, it’s part of your overall concept, and RatRaceTrap is already starting to become a brand. Moving them away will dilute the brand.
.-= Dragos Roua´s last blog ..How And Why We Get Bored =-.


Diggy - Upgradereality.com July 8, 2009 at 3:12 am

Interesting concept.
Id love to hear the solutions for chooising between two things you are not really interested in, or how to choose from two things that are both incredibly exciting.

Keep well!
.-= Diggy – Upgradereality.com´s last blog ..It is time for adventure – right now =-.


Stephen Mills July 8, 2009 at 5:32 am

@Dragos, “I truly think that enjoying life is something above pleasure or pain. And I do think we need both in order to experience the life fully.”

I agree we need them both. I recently had a conversation with someone about the contrast between work they don’t enjoy (pain) and a vacation they did (pleasure). I pointed out that without the pain they wouldn’t know the pleasure. But the balance is heavily weighted toward the pain (say 48 weeks a year) and it should be weighted towards the pleasure. I think this is uncontroversial. It’s what I choose anyway.

“Certainly. Of course I could prevent these types of behavior, but I can’t prevent life, no matter how hard I try. At some point there will be situations in which you will feel bad, she will feel frustrated, but everybody will learn and grow.”

You are correct you can’t prevent all pain. You can minimize it though. I choose to minimize pain.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting as always!

@Diggy, Stay tuned.


Jay Schryer July 8, 2009 at 6:05 am

This is great! I’m really looking forward to reading the future articles you have planned. Currently, I make the majority of my decisions out of the desire to avoid pain (negative), so I’m looking forward to seeing how I can make more positive ones.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..The Road’s Still Long =-.


ICONIC FREEDOM July 8, 2009 at 8:25 am

Quite often compromise comes, along with labeling of decisions, based on societal pressures to force “norms”. The lack of development toward trusting one’s own instincts for personal choices in life often lead to depression, anger, frustration & that all inclusive, pain.

When people follow their own personal guide from within they end up having a more joyful life. It is in the “pleasing” of others that life takes on its “negative” feeling.

All life is trial & error, the right and wrong placed upon choices is peer pressure for personal agenda. There is no right and wrong as it is subjective. If you have a reaction to that statement, it is suggested you look up the word subjective and know it for yourself.

Developing personal responsibility toward choices made at no cost to another is what creates the byproduct of integrity – the thing everyone is trying to create for self, maintain and example. Integrity gets created from self-efficacy, self-reliance & self-governance. Within us naturally is the desire toward success – but no one knows how to create that success except the individual.

However, you can’t get there if you are engaging in personal agenda outside of self. Notice how society, though, pressures individuals into doing just that – make your choices based on what I want you to do not what you want to do.

And why do others apply this pressure? Personal agenda toward control & manipulation of others’ behavior. And what does it create? See paragraph 1.

Stephen, you are definitely onto something, keep exploring these ideas on your blog, others need to hear your ideas. 🙂


Vin - NaturalBias July 8, 2009 at 11:40 am

I’ve never really looked at decisions this way and think it’s a great perspective. I believe that all the small decisions we make accumulate to have a significant impact on our lives which coincides with the idea of thriving from frequent positive decisions.

I think the example you provided about compromising with a spouse just to get along is an important one. While compromising is important to marriage, and any other type of relationship, I think doing it constantly will have a negative long term affect. It’s so common for couples who have been married for a while to let their relationship become more of a job than a source of enjoyment and fulfillment. I think this is very sad to see and that having a sort of damage control (negative) outlook on decisions has a lot to do with it.

I think your “Living Free” theme is similar enough to your other content that it would fit well having it here. Following the “less is more” theme of personal development, I’d keep it all as one blog. 🙂
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..Stop Blaming Genetics for Your Health Problems =-.


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills July 8, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Hi Stephen, so it’s the old pain and pleasure paradigm. I think it’s important to acknowledge that these two forces often have a simultaneous influence on our decisions. Many times it’s only a matter of degrees that determines whether the dominate motive it to move toward pleasure or away from pain.

It is also possible for a positive decision to create some pain, just as a negative decision can create some pleasure. So accessing our overall motive as positive or negative is not always as cut and dry as it might seem. Regardless of that, if our intention is to move in a positive direction I agree that we will be making positive decisions that primarily move us toward pleasure and help us avoid pain at the same time.
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..11 Steps to a More Positive You =-.


BunnygotBlog July 9, 2009 at 2:35 am

Hi Stephen,
I have been reading your articles recently. I found your comments on some other blog very interesting.
I think you have to feel pain in order to really appreciate pleasure.
There is no way around living life without knowing either of them.
I would say you could put a protective mask on not feeling pain but I think that is typical. Many people have added a hard shell to protect themselves from being hurt.They seldom let people in to avoid pain and disappointment.
I really enjoyed this article very much.
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Advertising Towards Dummies – Teenage Illusions =-.


Stephen Mills July 9, 2009 at 5:17 am

@Jay, thanks for your support and taking the time to comment. I wish you well in getting to positive decisions.

@ICONIC FREEDOM, I could not agree more with everything you say. Following societal or family pressure to follow norms is the source of a great deal of compromise of self and thus pain.

@Vin, absolutely. I think the accumulation of small negative decisions is probably as important or more important than big decisions. Thanks for commenting.

@Jonathan, on another blog once I commented that my writing should not be considered categorical, but I refuse to qualify and explore the subtleties of every statement. You can take things as generally applicable and not as applying to all situations at all times. So I agree, it’s not always cut and dried. But the general point is the same. You can make primarily negative decisions, which is my observation of most people, or you can make primarily positive decisions and I know very few people who do that. Your choice. I choose the latter. Thanks for your thoughts!

@BunnygotBlog, thanks for commenting. Very interesting comments there. So just to be clear I agree and I do NOT support suppressing pain or living a safe life to avoid getting hurt. That is exactly the point – making decisions to avoid pain is negative decision making. You take risks and you become vulnerable and you get hurt. But if you let people in with the right attitude, perspective, and expectations you will minimize any pain. Further you need to actually feel the pain you do suffer and then let it go.


Tim Brownson July 9, 2009 at 2:25 pm

I think there are two concurrent issues here. Some people end up making ‘away from’ decisions because they procrastinate and lack forethought and focus and what they really want. For those people I wholeheartedly agree with what you say because they are reacting.

On the other hand some people are wired to react positively to negative stuff and move away from it proactively.

It seems to me, most people think they are a more towards person, when experience tells me we’re all some where on the linear path between the two and as many are to the away from side as on the toward side. Most sales people will tell you they are motivated by big bonuses, but just as many are motivated by the urge to keep hold of their job. As long as people aren’t stressing about that, I see no harm in it.
.-= Tim Brownson´s last blog ..Going Primal =-.


Stephen Mills July 9, 2009 at 2:51 pm

@Tim thanks for your thoughts. I guess I see a huge difference between selling to have a job when you don’t particularly like selling and selling because you love it and to have a job. The difference between those states (positive decision to sell vs. negative decision to avoid not having money) seems obvious and uncontroversial to me.


Tim Brownson July 9, 2009 at 3:02 pm

I never said they didn’t like it, I said their motivation to succeed was different. I loved selling but I was always driven by away from factors for 90% of the time. I could care less about bonuses until they were a certainty.
.-= Tim Brownson´s last blog ..Going Primal =-.


Tracy July 9, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Oh darnitall, I got here after Tim and now his comment has made my head hurt. I might be overthinking this, but it seems like almost all of the decisions I make are both moving towards something and moving away from something and it’s very hard for me to puzzle out which is more important to me in my decision making.

For example, in making a compromise with my husband, I’m both moving away from conflict and towards peace and family harmony. It can be argued that I value those things more than asserting my autonomy or whatever motivation I’d have for not compromising.
.-= Tracy´s last blog ..Beautiful Boy, A book review =-.


BunnygotBlog July 9, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Hi Steve,
Back again, I choose to have a no regrets lifestyle. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been hurt only have learned that each experience has been a life lesson for me so why have regrets. People deal with pain differently, but they can turn that pain into a positive experience. There is always some positive with every negative. You just need to turn it around and expand on the good. So hopefully I made myself more clear to you.
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Advertising Towards Dummies – Teenage Illusions =-.


Ricky Nelson March 13, 2013 at 10:29 am

Bitch shut the fuck up and go suck some dick. if you guys really had a life you wouldnt be on this stupid shit. you fucking over emotional whore!!!


Stephen Mills July 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm

@Tim, I think you are missing the spirit of the article. If you are choosing between attractive alternatives, that is a completely different kind of life than choosing between the least worst alternatives. It’s not a difficult concept. You are trying to take me down what I consider a trivial bunny trail. Thanks for your thoughts.

@Tracy, Yes you are over thinking it and in the case of Tim I am making a negative decision to avoid the pain. You all can make it complicated if you want but it’s not. Everyone wants to take these kind of blog articles and drive them into literal death. The general idea is simple and in my mind uncontroversial. We can use words to twist it all over the place, but that accomplishes nothing.

Let’s say I have a Sunday afternoon. What do I want to do? I have a number of different exciting and fun things I can choose from and I select one of them. That is a free and positive choice.

On the other hand, if I am deciding whether I should mow the lawn (which I don’t want to do), visit my in-laws (which I don’t want to do), or clean my garage (which I don’t want to do) and I select mow the lawn because it is the least painful, I am making a negative choice. It’s not that difficult to understand if you don’t try to make it so. Sure you can come up with difficult examples, but that is beside the point. I don’t want to talk about the difficult cases. You can spend your time on the edges or you can get the main point and try to live it.

If your decisions are primarily the negative type, as in my examples, my position is that you are not living a thriving kind of life.

On your compromise question, it is my personal opinion that any kind of excessive compromise is not a free and positive life situation. If that is the kind of relationships you have, constant compromise, I believe it is a problem. Despite the blah blah blah that relationships are mostly compromise, I disagree. See my article Freedom From Compromise and Control for more information.


Stephen Mills July 9, 2009 at 7:19 pm

@BunnygotBlog, thanks and I agree. Pain is unavoidable and you should live a no-regrets life. The argument of this article was simple I thought! It was simply that you should attempt to arrange your life situation so you were selecting from positive alternatives rather than selecting from negative ones. I think that message got lost.


ICONIC FREEDOM July 9, 2009 at 8:50 pm

I want to offer this for consideration: life need not be pain at all, the pain is created from within the individual who seeks to victimize the self – this is accomplished by not empowering personal choice and the development of personal responsibility.

When you understand that you ALWAYS have a choice, you then must accept the choices you’ve made which have created error in your personal judgment of your own goals – no one else’s.

Once this is assimilated and the ability to respond to every choice made at no cost to another without his consent is achieved, what pain is there? what stress is there? what angst is created? None. Integrity of self, self-reliance, self-governance is achieved.

The pain in life is created from not taking personal responsibility for choices made. You can eliminate it, but only if you’re willing to be accountable (own your choices) for the life you have forged with each and every choice you’ve personally made along the way – no one forced you, no one coerced you – each choice was made by you. Whatever influences you allowed – were choices you made to be influenced or coerced.


Robin Easton July 9, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Hi Stephen. This is an interesting post. It’s almost like your saying that we all need to maybe take the bigger risk (or what may ‘seem’ like a risk) or the bigger step that gives us a better quality of life so that once in THAT situation there are FEWER or no negative choices.

I guess all I can say is that in my life I take great risks when it comes to creating quality of life (peace of mind, joy, happiness and contentment of spirit, growth, etc) so that I am not forced to live trapped in a cycle of endless negative choices, none of which are the answer and all are negative and leading no where. It’s just easier to make that one ‘seemingly’ daring jump or choice that will allow me to grow and have infinite positive choices.

Hope some of this makes sense. I’m not as clear after a long day. :)) But I enjoyed your article a lot. Thank you. Robin
.-= Robin Easton´s last blog ..Is Nature Real? =-.


Steve July 12, 2009 at 10:30 pm

This is truly a great and challenging post for me. Tony Robbins talks about the power of decision as a key success factor to achieving versus languishing. It’s too easy to rest on one’s laurels after achieving a certain level of success. It takes a winner to look at his/her goals and deliberately make the decisions to seek long term pleasure by enduring short term discomfort in order to achieve a worthwhile goal.
.-= Steve´s last blog ..Have You Used These Success Factors to Go From Victim to Victor? =-.


Oscar - freestyle mind July 13, 2009 at 2:12 am

positive vs negative decisions is of the few topics that really can make the difference. As with other high value activities, it is not something that show its results after one day, but it will change how your mind is programmed and how you make future decisions. Great work.
.-= Oscar – freestyle mind´s last blog ..Goals exposition to the rescue =-.


George Serradinho July 17, 2009 at 4:54 am

Wow, this article was spot on. We as people have choices to make every day and we sometimes only feel the after affect later on the decision we made. I went through a patch in my life to always take the easy way out which had a negative impact on my social life. I turned that around and life seems much brighter for me now.
.-= George Serradinho´s last blog ..Need to know more Twitter Lingo? =-.


Paul December 5, 2009 at 11:39 am

I enjoyed other articles here, but this one seems plain silly to me. I do very much want to hope that people will guide themselves in life by other criteria than “make a positive decision” (e.g. as written, “move toward pleasure”). Moreover, the division itself I would question. How come there are only negative (“avoid pain”) and positive (“seek pleasure”) decisions and no other kind? May be the the ‘pleasure’ here is *very* loosely defined to include broader range? This would explain something but then I still wouldn’t get the sense.
Somehow the author couldn’t convey whatever he meant, at least to me…


Ricky Nelson March 12, 2013 at 10:59 am

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Ricky Nelson´s last blog post ..Why Life’s Big Events Don’t Matter So Much


Big McDick224 March 12, 2013 at 11:01 am

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MILF March 12, 2013 at 11:10 am

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MILF´s last blog post ..Why Life’s Big Events Don’t Matter So Much


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