Killing pain kills pleasure

On the value of suffering

In an age where the reliance on antidepressants is not just increasing but extending over longer periods, it prompts a crucial re-examination of suffering's function in our lives. The complex, often paradoxical, relationship between suffering and fulfilment presents us with the possibility that our efforts to eliminate all suffering could unintentionally erode the depth and vibrancy of the human experience, writes Brock Bastian.


About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

W. H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts


Suffering has undeniably earned a negative reputation. This isn't just acknowledging its intrinsic anti-hedonic nature, but also perceiving it as a force that diminishes our overall quality of life. Such a viewpoint fosters the belief that eliminating all suffering would significantly improve both our world and personal lives. But what would that world look like, and would our lives really be improved if we eradicated our capacity to suffer?

The counterpoint to this perspective is that suffering is in fact a valuable form of human experience, and furthermore, that without the capacity to suffer, it would be impossible to experience pleasure or extract satisfaction and meaning from life. Such questions received renewed import in an age where many more of us not only take anti-depressants, but also continue to stay on them for longer and sometimes indefinitely. However, to suppose that suffering is necessary for a meaningful life is not to deny or dimmish the tragedy of suffering, but to provide a different perspective, and one that in the end may in fact prove useful for responding to various forms of suffering that we do inevitably experience in life.

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A narrow view of suffering

One of the reasons that we often overlook the role of suffering in the good life, is that we tend to have a narrow view of what suffering includes, meaning we often fail to see the role of suffering in many of the activities that bring us the most pleasure. For instance, we’re more likely to say that we get pleasure from marathons or studying, even though both cause a significant amount of personal suffering. We might refer to these experiences as difficult or hard, characterizing the extent to which they challenge us, but stop short of identifying the pain and suffering which defines that challenge. It is hard to imagine either marathons or studying as challenging if it were not for the fact that participating in them leads us to endure activities that can be unpleasant and even painful.


People frequently get their peak level of enjoyment from innately negative experiences just at the point where they can barely stand it anymore.


It is interesting to note that, perhaps due to this narrow view of suffering, we tend to view people who get enjoyment from suffering as morally suspect. Most obviously, this occurs in the context of sexual masochism, frequently considered a form of deviant behaviour. Yet, research shows that many people seek out and enjoy innately negative experiences, such as sad movies, spicy foods, bungee jumping, and cold-water swimming. This behavioural tendency has been referred to as Benign Masochism, and research by Paul Rozin and colleagues shows that people frequently get their peak level of enjoyment from innately negative experiences just at the point where they can barely stand it anymore. In an almost quasi- ascetic sense, this suffering can be enjoyable, but it is not the case that the milder the suffering the better; people like their suffering to take them to a point which pushes their boundaries, challenges them, but also does not destroy or traumatise them.

Upon reflection it becomes clear that there are many experiences in life that give us pleasure, but which are not themselves purely constructed from pleasure. Furthermore, when you remove the suffering from these experiences, they become mundane, pointless, and unrewarding.     


Why is suffering necessary for the good life?

It is one thing to argue that suffering can be pleasurable in some contexts, but it is quite another to argue that suffering is in fact necessary for the experience of any pleasure, satisfaction, or meaning in life at all. Yet, from a psychological standpoint there is good reason to think that eradicating all suffering may in fact serve to undermine, rather than promote, our wellbeing. This is not to say that all suffering all the time is the way forward either; as with anything moderation is needed.


Comfort and pleasure fade quickly from view if not also contrasted with something else.



The psychology of adaptation

One way to understand the necessity of suffering comes from our understanding of the psychology of adaptation. Humans are highly adaptable to their environments, and this means that both the experience of pleasure and the experience of pain and suffering become less extreme overtime. This has allowed us to overcome, and thrive within, challenging environments. Yet, it also means that comfort and pleasure fade quickly from view if not also contrasted with something else. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “we only have five senses, and they become satiated so quickly.”

A good example is the experience of a hot spa. On a cold night, getting into a hot spa can be a highly pleasurable and rewarding experience. Overtime, however, the experience of pleasure dissipates as our bodies become accustomed to the new temperature. How could we get the experience of pleasure we had at first all over again? Well, generally, people jump into a plunge pool of cold water until shivering just a little and then get back into the spa. It is this contrasting experience which releases the same level of pleasure a second time.

The same is true of many pleasures in life. We get more pleasure from food when hungry, from drinking when thirsty, and from rest when physically tired. If these drives or needs remain constantly satiated, there is little reward experienced from relieving them. It is when we first endure some level of discomfort or unpleasantness that we are able to reap the full benefits of a pleasurable and rewarding experience.


The psychology of relief

While the process of adaptation can lead to a pleasant experience becoming less intense and more mundane overtime, the experience of relief provides insight into why suffering has the capacity to increase pleasure. This can be observed in the case of receiving bad news, which leads one to worry and experience a state of anxiety. If that news, however, turns out to be less negative than one first thought, the ensuing sense of relief is associated with a more positive hedonic state than that which was experienced prior to hearing the news in the first place.


This is perhaps why relief is not simply defined by the absence of negative affect, relief itself is also experienced as a positive affective state.


Another good example is the case of the ‘runners high’. People often report increased feelings of euphoria after they have engaged in strenuous exercise. Put simply, even though the process of exercising itself was unpleasant, upon completing this activity they feel better than they did before they started. Research has demonstrated that this opponent process is correlated with the release of opioids, providing an underlying biological mechanism via which the experience of suffering can lead to feelings of satisfaction.

This is perhaps why relief is not simply defined by the absence of negative affect, relief itself is also experienced as a positive affective state.


Peak Experiences

If you take a moment and recall the most memorable events of your life it is likely that there will be one thing in common. These memorable events will likely be characterized by high levels of affect. This may be highly positive experiences, but also highly negative experiences. Research on peak experiences has demonstrated that when we recall events our memory of those events tends to be shaped by the peak highs as well as the peak lows. When it comes to what elements of an event give it meaning, or which events over a longer time span tend to give our lives meaning, it is the peaks that matter – both the positive and the negative.


Suffering can make us feel better

Sometimes suffering can make us feel better, even when it is not enjoyable. For instance, suffering can serve as a form of justice restoration when we are feeling guilty. This explains the use of self-flagellation in religious contexts, but perhaps also why we might do an extra hard workout at the gym or run that extra mile when we feel angry with ourselves. In fact, research shows that when people are feeling guilt or anger, they are more likely to seek out painful activities.  


Suffering gets us together and makes us stronger

Beyond making us feel better, suffering can also lead us to become better people. One way it can do this is by forging a sense of belonging and connection with others. There are many examples which suggest that people, at least sometimes, respond to traumatic events in this way. For instance, data shows that in response to the 9/11 attacks there was a spike in volunteering rates across America. Research has also found that when exposed to acutely painful experiences people become more prosocial, to trust each other and cooperate as a team, and through this groups may even become more creative and innovative.

Suffering is also important for building resilience. According to Nietzsche, suffering is a blessing in disguise; it allows us to be able to withstand life’s hardships and crystalises us into stronger individuals. There is now a rather large body of literature on the concept of post traumatic growth, and that past exposure to traumatic events can lead to positive improvements. There is also evidence that people who have endured a moderate amount of lifetime adversity are not only more resilient when it comes to managing traumatic events, or tolerating acute pain, but they also overall report more happiness and satisfaction in life.  


Killing pain, it seems also has the capacity to kill pleasure.


Suffering, it seems, is inherently tied to the good life. We often fail to notice the role of suffering in producing pleasure, satisfaction, and meaning because it is often hiding in plain sight. Culturally, we have also come to view suffering as simply negative, and therefore fail to appreciate the many pathways through which it is connected to pleasure. It also appears that reducing suffering is just as likely to reduce our pleasure in life. In fact, researchers have found that giving people acetaminophen (paracetamol) not only reduces the rated unpleasantness of visual stimuli, but also reduces ratings of pleasantness. Killing pain, it seems also has the capacity to kill pleasure.

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The irony is that without substantially changing our biological and psychological make-up, eradicating suffering is a near impossibility. Endless pleasure is itself a form of suffering. Whether that suffering is tied to over-indulgence, such as the feeling of sickness that ensues from too much chocolate, or the numbness that might result from enduring invariant hedonic states, pleasure quickly morphs into suffering, ensuring that we have the contrasts that we need while also effectively regulating our hedonic appetite.

Suffering has a bad name, but that is because suffering has been misunderstood. If it were only an experience which detracted value from our lives, then we could never explain why people seek out suffering. Moreover, with a broader view of suffering in hand we can see this behaviour occurs more frequently that we might at first realize. This is due to the many benefits it offers, and ultimately its necessary role in building pleasure and wellbeing in life.

A life without suffering, in the end, appears not to be a very valuable life at all.

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