Western culture today equates the pursuit of happiness with seeking out pleasure and comfort. But without the pursuit of experiences and goals that entail a certain degree of suffering, our lives would be meaningless, argues Paul Bloom in this interview.
The fundamental thesis of your new book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, is that suffering is necessary for a happy and meaningful life. Why do you think that claim can come as a surprise to some?
Many people, including many psychologist colleagues, think that we are hedonists—that pleasure is all that matters. If this is your perspective, then the importance of suffering can get missed.
Now a smart hedonist can concede some role of suffering—maybe suffering now leads to more pleasure later, and the math works out so that choosing the suffering is a smart move for someone who only wants pleasure. But I argue that suffering gives us more than pleasure, and more than happiness; that it is central to goals we have that are entirely separate from those of pleasure and happiness. This refusal to treat pleasure/happiness as the sole goal of life is a surprise to some (though, as I point out in the book, old news to many others, particularly those steeped in religious tradition.)
Some people, especially in the modern West, think that all that matters for a good life is pleasure. One purpose of my book is to argue against this.
Has western culture misunderstood happiness to mean comfort and joy? What do you think the source of this misunderstanding is?
Everyone seems to use the word “happiness” in a different way, and I’m cool with this. I don’t think that someone who equates happiness with pleasure is making a mistake; they simply have their own definition.
So here’s a different way to frame my view without that annoying word. Some people, especially in the modern West, think that all that matters for a good life is pleasure. One purpose of my book is to argue against this, to defend what’s been called motivational pluralism, which is the view that people want many things. We want pleasure, of course, but we also want to have meaningful lives, to be morally good, to have intimate relationships, to enjoy a range of experiences, and much else.
You say our culture suffers from a fetishization of pleasure. But is it not also true that Western culture, particularly the economic structure we live under, also fetishizes achievement? And is there not a risk in telling people that they have to suffer to live meaningful lives, when they live in an economic system that benefits from suffering (for example, the overworking of employees)?
I think there are some interesting issues here, but I should emphasize that I am not overall in favour of suffering. Most suffering is awful. My book is a defence of chosen suffering, everything from hot baths to BDSM to scary movies to training for a marathon to having children. Involuntary and unchosen suffering of the sort you’re talking about is totally different, and I think—contrary to some—that there is little to be said for it.
I will add, though, just to challenge a premise of your question, that by every possible measure, the citizens of communist countries are miserable and unfulfilled. People seem to flourish the most in societies that have some degree of market capitalism, though also with strong support for those at the bottom of the ladder.
There is a distinction to be drawn between pursuing meaningful goals that entail a degree of suffering, for example wanting to run a marathon under a certain time, and pursuing suffering as a goal in itself, for example listening to music that makes us feel sad. How do you understand these different types of “the pursuit of suffering”?
Yes, they are different. I think chosen suffering can satisfy many different appetites. Some of our chosen suffering exists solely to enhance pleasure; some of it satisfies moral goals—most of us think that certain kinds of suffering are morally good; and some of it, like raising children, exists because it is part and parcel of a meaningful life, regardless of whether or not it gives us pleasure.
The puzzle remains: Why do people sometimes get pleasure—and more—from pain, given that pain, almost by definition, is just what we avoid?
In the case of goals that require a certain amount of suffering, like raising children, you seem to think that the suffering is an essential part of the meaningfulness of the goal. The suffering, according to your view, is somehow intrinsic to the meaningfulness of having children. Does this mean that the experience of having children is less meaningful for those with the means to make it a lot easier to raise children?
Yes, my claim is that suffering—or, more mildly, effort, struggle, concern, and the like —is intrinsic to meaningfulness. Something that’s effortless and risk-free isn’t likely to be a meaningful pursuit.
This is different from saying that “the more suffering, the more meaning”. I doubt that the relationship is dose-dependent, as opposed to there being a sort of threshold.
For experiences that are somewhat painful, but that seem to be pursued as ends in themselves, like the spicy food example, is it right to even call those experiences ‘suffering’? Isn’t it just the case that some people derive pleasure from experiencing a certain amount of pain?
I don’t want to quarrel about words. My book is about why people chose experiences that are painful, effortful, and aversive, that lead to normally unpleasant emotions like fear and anger; that are usually the sorts of things we dread and would pay to avoid.
To describe these experiences, I use the umbrella term “suffering” here, but I’m perfectly cool if you want to describe some of them as “pain but not suffering”. The puzzle remains: Why do people sometimes get pleasure—and more—from pain, given that pain, almost by definition, is just what we avoid?
The German philosopher Schopenhauer defined happiness as the absence of all pain and want. You seem to reject this understanding of happiness, but when you describe the pleasure of eating spicy food or going for a long run, it sounds like the pleasure element comes from the alleviation of the self-inflicted pain - for example drinking a cold beer after spicy food. Do you think Schopenhauer got something right?
A certain sort of pleasure-through-suffering is, as you describe, the good feeling you get from the release of pain, and I discuss both everyday examples and scientific studies that explore how this works. So, sure, there’s a point for Schopenhauer.
But most pleasure—and most happiness—is plainly a lot more than the release of pain and want. To describe the pleasure of falling in love, say, as the experience of an absence seems to get the psychology seriously wrong.
One of the functions of boredom is that it motivates us to do interesting and difficult and meaningful things. But it’s now hard for anyone with a phone to ever be bored.
Is it possible that the pain or suffering that is connected to meaningful pursuits and attachments is only a risk, rather than a necessary element? For example, loving someone can be for the most part a pleasurable experience, but it comes with the risk of suffering: of betrayal, of worry, of death etc.
One of the hardest questions that I struggled with as I wrote the book concerns the notion of meaning. What is a meaningful activity, a meaningful pursuit, a meaningful life? As you can guess, there is a lot of philosophy on this, some of it wonderful, but in the end, I was most interested in people’s common-sense notions. What do we think is meaningful? And it turns out that common-sense notion is that a meaningful pursuit involves struggle, effort and the like. If it’s easy, what’s the point? In the end, a meaningful experience has to have value, and value is directly tied to some sort of suffering.
Sometimes this might only be a matter of risk—but you have to be aware of the risk, it has to weigh on you. An activity that you believed was going to be easy and problem-free would be, as you started to engage in it, one without meaning. It’s the risk here—and the anxiety connected to the risk—that is a necessary element.
One important thing to keep in mind is that achievement of the goal isn’t what it’s ultimately about. The satisfaction comes from the pursuit.
Is it harder than ever to lead a meaningful life, given that we are surrounded by a culture promoting easy access to instant gratification? We are constantly given opportunities to enjoy ourselves, to distract ourselves from difficult tasks (Twitter, YouTube, 24h news). Has it become harder to choose the route of meaningful activities?
Definitely yes. One of the functions of boredom is that it motivates us to do interesting and difficult and meaningful things. But it’s now hard for anyone with a phone to ever be bored. The CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings once boasted that his biggest competition wasn’t other streaming services—it was sleep. I think that inventions like Twitter and Facebook are in competition with life. And they often win.
How do we know when the suffering that the goal we are pursuing is simply too much to make the possibility of achieving the goal and the satisfaction that comes with it worthwhile? How do we know where the sweet spot between suffering and meaning is?
It’s important to choose the right sort of pursuit. Research into flow states finds that the optimal experience falls into a sweet spot. Not too easy (or you’ll get bored) and not too difficult (or you will get anxious). And I think it’s important to try to titrate your broader goals similarly. If you’re out of shape, it can be worthwhile training for a 10K, but probably not an Ironman Triathlon.
One important thing to keep in mind, though, is that achievement of the goal isn’t what it’s ultimately about. The satisfaction comes from the pursuit.