Why Human Beings Secretly Want to Feel Pain, According to a Psychologist
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Why Human Beings Secretly Want to Feel Pain, According to a Psychologist

Arts & Culture Happiness Psychology
Why Human Beings Secretly Want to Feel Pain, According to a Psychologist

Some people think humans are simply pleasure-seekers. But not psychologist Paul Bloom. In his new book The Sweet Spot, Paul says we’re pain-seekers, too. Just think about all the uncomfortable things we do for fun—eating spicy food, climbing treacherous mountains, watching scary movies, engaging in BDSM. Why do that stuff? According to Paul, it’s because pain can enhance pleasure, chosen suffering can make you more resilient, and adversity can suffuse your life with meaning.

This week on the Next Big Idea podcast, Paul sits down with Next Big Idea Club curator Susan Cain to explain how and why we should add a little discomfort to our lives. Listen to the full episode below, or read a few key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks into the show.

Why are we drawn to unpleasant experiences?

Susan Cain: It feels to me, reading your book, as if you started by wondering about these questions of why we are drawn to unpleasant experiences, whether it’s horror movies or sad songs. But I feel like your book actually ends up becoming a real instruction guide—and meditation on—the nature of happiness and meaning.

Paul Bloom: I don’t know if this happens with you, but the book is somewhat unrecognizable from the proposal. I was going to call it The Pleasures of Suffering, and it was going to be about why we willingly do things like eat spicy foods and take hot baths. Why do we seem to take pleasure in suffering? It was going to explore the psychology of it. But as I began to do that, I became interested in suffering more broadly. I became interested in human motivation. And in the end, it’s an argument for what I call motivational pluralism. We don’t just want pleasure—we want other things, too. We want to be good. We want to have meaningful lives. We want to have a range of different experiences. We want different things, and suffering could be a route to getting many of these things.

Negative emotions aren’t always negative; it’s all about perspective.

Susan: You talk about negative emotions not necessarily being unpleasant, which sounds like a paradox, because if they’re negative, then by definition they would seem to be unpleasant. Can you tell us more about what you mean?

Paul: So one way to approach this issue is through David Hume and his famous “paradox of tragedy.” He’s interested in fictional experiences, like books or plays, and he says, Why do we sometimes choose to go through sorrow and terror and anxiety, even though those things are inherently unpleasant? It’s an enormous puzzle, and people have wrestled with it since.

“Sometimes suffering is part of the fun.”

One response to this is: These feelings, although typically negative, are not in themselves bad. Sometimes we can take pleasure from them. Sometimes we can get insight from them. Sometimes they are unpleasant, but we can revel in them nonetheless.

One way to think about this is fear. Imagine a case where you’re really afraid. Like, I don’t know—it’s the middle of the night, and you hear heavy footsteps and people running toward you. It’s very scary. But what makes it unpleasant? I think what makes it unpleasant is that this is a situation that could involve injury or death or something like that.

On the other hand, imagine you could feel fear in a case where there’s no real threat to you—you’re fantasizing, you’re dreaming, you’re in a haunted house. Now it takes on a different texture. You say, “I love being afraid. I want to be afraid. I came here to be afraid.”

You can play with pain to give yourself subsequent pleasure.

Susan: Tell us about the contrast theory of happiness.

Paul: So, sometimes suffering is part of fun. You can ask, “Why do we have hot baths and saunas and spicy foods? What’s going on?” One thing is simple contrast. The brain is a difference engine. Experiences are not typically thought of in terms of absolutes—they’re relative to what we’ve thought of before, relative to our expectations, and relative to what we’re feeling. So, going without food for a while makes food taste better. Eating spicy food and having your mouth burn sets the stage up for drinking some cool beer. You’re not going to get that kind of relief without the pain to begin with.

I gave a talk in Finland a few years ago, and my host took me to a sauna. Classic Finnish sauna—you’re in there, and you’re broiling. It feels awful. But it’s built so you hop right out into a lake, and it is mind-blowingly blissful. Then when you’re done—broil, lake; broil, lake; broil, lake—you’re sitting there in a bathrobe, and attractive people give you beer and sausages. It’s just bliss.

You play with pain in order to give yourself subsequent pleasure. I don’t know that there’s a deep evolutionary story here. It’s a hack people use.

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