Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay: Why We Choose to Suffer: The Struggle for a Meaningful Life, by Paul Bloom (University of Toronto; Author, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning):
In the search for a meaningful life, simply seeking pleasure isn’t enough. We need struggle and sacrifice.
The simplest theory of human nature is that we work as hard as we can to avoid ... [painful] experiences. We pursue pleasure and comfort; we hope to make it through life unscathed. Suffering and pain are, by their very nature, to be avoided. ... .
But this theory is incomplete. Under the right circumstances and in the right doses, physical pain and emotional pain, difficulty and failure and loss, are exactly what we are looking for. ...
Consider ... chosen suffering. People, typically young men, sometimes choose to go to war, and while they don’t wish to be maimed or killed, they are hoping to experience challenge, fear and struggle—to be baptized by fire, to use the clichéd phrase. Some of us choose to have children, and usually we have some sense of how hard it will be. Maybe we even know of all the research showing that, moment by moment, the years with young children can be more stressful than any other time of life. (And those who don’t know this ahead of time will quickly find out.) And yet we rarely regret such choices. More generally, the projects that are most central to our lives involve suffering and sacrifice.
The importance of suffering is old news. It is part of many religious traditions, including the story in Genesis of how original sin condemned us to a life of struggle. It is central to Buddhist thought—the focus of the Four Noble Truths.
Not all suffering is valuable, though. To tell someone who is deeply depressed that they need more pain in their life would be cruel if it weren’t so ridiculous. I know psychologists who will tell you that bad experiences are good for you—they speak about post-traumatic growth, an increase in kindness and altruism, more meaning in life—and this sometimes does happen. But the evidence suggests that common sense is right here: Unchosen suffering is awful; avoid it if you can.
But chosen suffering is a different story. A life well lived is more than a life of pleasure and happiness. It involves, among other things, meaningful pursuits. And some forms of suffering, involving struggle and difficulty, are essential parts of achieving these higher goals, and for living a complete and fulfilling life.
Some people report more meaning in their lives than others. In a landmark 2013 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Roy Baumeister and colleagues asked hundreds of subjects how happy they were and how meaningful their lives were, and then asked other questions about their moods and activities. It turns out that some features of one’s life relate to both happiness and meaning—both are correlated with rich social connections and not being bored. They are also correlated with each other: People who report high levels of happiness tend to say the same about finding meaning in their lives, and vice versa. You can have both. ...
[E]xclusively seeking happiness is a mistake—even if all you care about is being happy. Research by Brett Q. Ford and her colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2015, explores the effects of being motivated to pursue happiness by asking people to rate themselves on items such as “Feeling happy is extremely important to me” and “How happy I am at any given moment says a lot about how worthwhile my life is.” Those who highly agree with such items are less likely to get good outcomes in life and more likely to be depressed and lonely. Perhaps the self-conscious pursuit of happiness makes you think a lot about how happy you are, and this gets in the way of being happy. ...
But another explanation is that the happiness-pursuers often focus on the wrong things. A meta-analysis by Helga Dittmar and her colleagues, published in 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, summed up more than 200 studies and found that “respondents report less happiness and life satisfaction, lower levels of vitality and self-actualization, and more depression, anxiety, and general psychopathology to the extent that they believe that the acquisition of money and possessions is important and key to happiness and success in life.” ...
The good news is that we don’t have to choose between meaning and pleasure. We know from the work of Baumeister and others that a meaningful life can also be a happy one. There are plenty of people who have lives of both great joy and great struggle.
Human motivation is a lot richer than many people, including many psychologists, believe. The point was nicely made by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel “Brave New World.” He described a society of stability, control and drug-induced happiness—a society that sacrificed everything else for the goal of maximizing pleasure. Near the end of the book, there is a conversation between Mustapha Mond, the representative of the establishment, and John, who has rebelled against the system. Mond argues heatedly for the value of pleasure. He goes on about the neurological interventions being developed to maximize human pleasure, how convenient and easy it all is, and he concludes by saying, “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
And John responds, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” There is no better summary of human nature.
Paul Bloom, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning:
“This book will challenge you to rethink your vision of a good life. With sharp insights and lucid prose, Paul Bloom makes a captivating case that pain and suffering are essential to happiness. It’s an exhilarating antidote to toxic positivity.” —Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife
From the author of Against Empathy comes a different kind of happiness book, one that shows us how suffering is an essential source of both pleasure and meaning in our lives.
Why do we so often seek out physical pain and emotional turmoil? We go to movies that make us cry, or scream, or gag. We poke at sores, eat spicy foods, immerse ourselves in hot baths, run marathons. Some of us even seek out pain and humiliation in sexual role-play. Where do these seemingly perverse appetites come from?
Drawing on groundbreaking findings from psychology and brain science, The Sweet Spot shows how the right kind of suffering sets the stage for enhanced pleasure. Pain can distract us from our anxieties and help us transcend the self. Choosing to suffer can serve social goals; it can display how tough we are or, conversely, can function as a cry for help. Feelings of fear and sadness are part of the pleasure of immersing ourselves in play and fantasy and can provide certain moral satisfactions. And effort, struggle, and difficulty can, in the right contexts, lead to the joys of mastery and flow.
But suffering plays a deeper role as well. We are not natural hedonists—a good life involves more than pleasure. People seek lives of meaning and significance; we aspire to rich relationships and satisfying pursuits, and this requires some amount of struggle, anxiety, and loss. Brilliantly argued, witty, and humane, Paul Bloom shows how a life without chosen suffering would be empty—and worse than that, boring.