A good life involves more than just pleasure. Suffering is essential too. It seems obvious that pleasure leads to happiness – and pain does the opposite. And yet we are irresistibly drawn to a host of experiences that truly hurt, from the exhilarating fear of horror movies or extreme sport, to the wrenching sadness of a song or novel, to the gruelling challenges of exercise, work, creativity and having a family.
In The Sweet Spot, pre-eminent psychologist Paul Bloom explores the pleasures of suffering and explains why the activities that provide most satisfaction are often the ones that involve greatest sacrifice. He argues that embracing this truth is the key to a life well lived. Drawing on ground-breaking findings from psychology and brain science, he shows how the right kind of suffering sets the stage for enhanced pleasure, and how pain itself can serve a variety of valuable functions: to distract us from our anxieties or even express them, to help us transcend the self or project our identity, or as a gateway to the joys of mastery and flow.
In this interview, I speak to Paul Bloom on the role of suffering in our lives. Paul argues that, deep down we all aspire to lives of meaning and significance, and that means some amount of struggle, anxiety, and loss. After all, if the things that mean most to us were easy, what would be the point? Paul’s conversation gives an unexpected insight into the human condition.
Q: Why does so much of our ‘self-help’ style literature focus on happiness?
[Paul Bloom]: The field of positive psychology, and people in general, would benefit from thinking harder about what a good life is. A lot of people think we’re pleasure motivated hedonists, but it turns out we have many other goals. I’m pushing what’s called motivational pluralism. We want happiness, but that comes in many different forms. We want pleasure, we want to be good people, we want to make a difference in the world, we want meaningful pursuits.
We often get this wrong – for example. It’s true that people with more money are happier. There is a real relationship between money and happiness that we shouldn’t forget however striving for money is correlated with having a worse outcome in life. People who say, ‘making money is very important to me…’ are the very same people who are likely to be depressed an anxious. We often miss the value of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘Flow’ experiences- experiences where we get deeply engaged with something. We often miss the value of meaningful pursuits, and grounded activities like building relationships and long-term projects. We’re too caught up in the view that pleasure is the be-all and end-all.
Q: What is the role that suffering plays in our lives?
[Paul Bloom]: Suffering is anything that causes you pain, anxiety, or discomfort. The sort of things you would normally avoid. A lot of suffering is, unsurprisingly, bad for you. You should avoid it. You should avoid being assaulted… there’s no bright side to the death of a loved one… there’s no happiness in watching your house burn down… nor is there happiness to be found in getting a horrible disease. Unchosen suffering is awful, but chosen suffering, the sort of suffering we seek-out can be a source of pleasure. Think of activities like going to a horror movie, BDSM, hot baths, saunas… the whole thing. Chosen suffering is part and parcel of a meaningful life. If you don’t have any chosen suffering in your life, you’re probably not living the best life you could.
There’s an argument made by some people that we lack suffering and difficulty in modern times, that life is too easy. People argue we’re not fighting wars in the same way as we did historically, that our social support networks are better, that we’re not desperately struggling to survive or for our kid’s survival. This argument hinges on the notion that we’ve lost something in society… that society was better with more struggle. Studies do show that countries which are poor and in turmoil do- indeed- seem to have residents who claim to have more meaning in their lives than countries which are higher in ‘happiness.’ This does show the potential trade-off between happiness, suffering, and meaning.
One reason I’m not entirely convinced by this argument is that we see a lot of people who have wealthy, happy, full, protected lives who still get a lot of meaning from difficult pursuits. In fact, when you ask people how happy they are, and how much meaning they have in their lives, the responses are often correlated.
To put it primitively, we’re the mammal that likes Tabasco sauce! As the psychologist, Paul Rosen, puts it…we’re the only creature (as far as we know) that seeks out suffering and pain willingly. We do so not just through liberal splashes of Tabasco on our food, but also through seeking meaning through activities.
Q: Does the shared experience of suffering bring us closer together?
[Paul Bloom]: There’s a wonderful book, ‘A Paradise Built in Hell,’ where Rebecca Solnit (the author) argues that in times of struggle… typhoons, earthquakes and natural disasters… that people come together, establishing and strengthening community in a very powerful way. There’s even laboratory evidence that when you make a group suffer in some way, it gives them more of a bond.
I can’t resist saying that COVID may be the exception to this because the dominant reaction to an epidemic or pandemic is isolation and withdrawal. Covid isn’t making us closer or building bonds of community… many of us are staying home and ordering our food on delivery apps while we watch Netflix. We’re not interacting in the street. This isn’t the Blitz in London where we’re cuddling together when the bombs fall, we’re just isolating. One of the many, many awful things about this pandemic is that it’s disconnected us from each other.
Q: Does suffering help build resilience?
[Paul Bloom]: There’s some psychological evidence which shows that people who have experienced very little suffering in their lives often have very low tolerance for difficulty and strangely enough, lower kindness.
Even in the most pampered societies, there’s plenty of suffering and difficulty. There’s no way to make it through life unscathed. You may be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back… you may get humiliated at work… you may not be meeting your goals… you’ll age… just being mortal in a world full of competing creatures means that suffering will come to you. You will get your share.
There are ways however, in which people in the more pampered societies do seek-out suffering. We often choose difficult, meaningful, pursuits – anyone who has kids has chosen a life of considerable difficulty, stress and strain. Yet, a lot of people choose to have kids, choose to do triathlons, climb mountains, participate in combat sports… all these activities involve difficult, struggling and strain.
Q: How does suffering link to our sense of identity?
[Paul Bloom]: Purpose and meaning are inextricably tied to suffering and difficulty. If you tell me a pursuit that you view as meaningful and important, I can guarantee it won’t be easy. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be meaningful or important. We reserve the notion of meaning for things that have difficulty. In part, because you have to make an impact to have meaning and making an impact at minimum requires effort.
If we tie this to group identity… a lot of groups will take the shared bond of suffering and use that as a tie that binds them together. It can be good and bad. In our modern times, many of us are more cosmopolitan, less tied to groups split along ethnicity and family, and so we find other things to bind us.
Q: Is there an intersection between suffering, pain, and morality?
[Paul Bloom]: The intersection between suffering, pain and morality is complicated. If we look at adolescents who cut themselves- this is a form of chosen suffering which, unlike many others, does seem to reflect problems in life, and borders with mental illness… sometimes it’s simply done to distract from anxiety and stress… and sometimes as a form of self-punishment. Somebody may think, ‘I’m just a loser…. I’m horrible… and I’m going to mutilate myself….’
By contrast, people who pursue goals that involve suffering and difficulty see it often as a moral mission. They tend to see themselves as doing the right thing. George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s, ‘Mein Kampf,’ and noted that Hitler had- indeed- got something right. He identified that humans don’t just want comfort, a warm bed, and a nice meal… they want danger and death in the pursuit of some divine purpose. Groups like ISIS have capitalised on this. This is where we also see the difference between meaningful and moral. Adolf Eichmann was clearly engaged in what he thought was a meaningful pursuit, perhaps he was even in a state of flow, thinking that what he was doing was ‘good’ – even though he was the architect of the death of millions of people. Meaningful and moral are different in an interesting sense; something can be meaningful, and yet be morally terrible.
Q: Is there a link between suffering and a sense of religiosity or ‘higher purpose’?
[Paul Bloom]: Most of my book The Sweet Spot is about chosen suffering. You choose to have kids, you choose to run a marathon, you choose to eat spicy food. You choose these things because there’s a payoff later in future pleasure.
Religion certainly provides a narrative for suffering, perhaps God is testing you… perhaps you will be rewarded in heaven… perhaps you are reliving the suffering of Christ on the cross. Maybe this is what religion is for, to give meaning to the terrible, unchosen suffering and random awful things that happen to us.
I did some research a few years ago with Konika Banerjee, a graduate student, and we asked people who were- and were not- religious about whether big events in their lives (good and bad) happen for a reason or happen to send a message. Our respondents – religious, secular and atheist responded ‘yes’ at a high rate. Even atheists and entirely secular people had some form of intuitive belief in karma… that there’s a logic to things. It seems very difficult to face the world absent that belief. It’s very difficult to realise that at any given point, the people you love could die or that you could get horribly ill. We hunger to explain unchosen suffering.
Q: How does suffering link to our need for the dopamine hit of pleasure?
[Paul Bloom]: I’m a pluralist. I’m not the guy who’s saying, ‘Oh just seek meaning, seek higher goals, seek higher pursuits…’ – you need to seek pleasure too. If it’s a very hot day, and you have a very cold drink, it feels great, it’s fine! We’re animals, and the pursuit of pleasure is part of a full life.
Pleasure has limits, it’s fleeting, we habituate to it quickly and get bored of it. Something which is delicious to eat in the first bite is less in the second, and still less in the third. That’s the way it tends to go.
You can also see the interplay between suffering and pleasure. It’s a truism that you can only experience pleasure against a backdrop of pain, difficulty, or struggle. We know this at an implicit level. We allocate pain and pleasure; we balance them out in clever ways. Given a choice, we start with the pain and rise to the pleasure – we set-up with negative experiences so the pleasure of the positive jumps out much higher in contrast.
[Vikas: does suffering therefore link to beauty?]
[Paul Bloom]: There’s a sense that the practice of mindfulness, for example, strips things out. Biases and smooths everything out. It allows you see things as they are. That’s one framework through which to live one’s life – but there’s also the extremes of experience too. Does pain amplify pleasure? Are the flowers brighter when bombs are blowing up around you?
Q: What is the role of suffering in a life well-lived?
[Paul Bloom]: When I was in my 30s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sent me his book, Flow. A state of flow is where you’re not bored, you’re not anxious, you’re totally lost in what you’re doing. We’ve all experienced those moments where we forget to eat because we’re so caught-up in what we’re doing, right? That’s flow. I hadn’t appreciated how important these flow states are to living a good, full life, and so now I seek those states more. In much the same way, most of us don’t know the explicit role of chosen suffering in our pursuits, and how valuable those experiences are.
I raised young kids… and much of that experience is about being sleep-deprived, grumpy and miserable. Maybe it must be, for it to be so rewarding!