Why We Need Pain To Experience Happiness
Photographs courtesy of Penguin
When it comes to being cheery, it really is no pain, no gain.
Our day-to-day lives have never been easier. We’re living in an age where you can have food delivered to your door, order a taxi within seconds, and shop for things without ever having to interact with another soul. But it’s questionable whether any of the stuff we think ought to be making us happier actually does – social media is making us miserable, while the painkiller and anti-depressants market continues to grow rapidly.
What’s more, we tend to associate happiness with success, and unhappiness with failure, not taking into account that nobody – not even those grinning faces in the unrelenting spool of your Instagram feed – can be happy all of the time. Our warped sense of what happiness actually means is something that Mr Brock Bastian tackles in his new book, The Other Side of Happiness. Mr Bastian, a social psychologist specialising in happiness, pain, morality, and how these things work together, picks apart the ways we think about being happy in contemporary society. We spoke to Mr Bastian, who told us why we’ve got happiness all wrong and how we can change our outlook on failure and pain.
What are some of the problems with our obsession with positivity?
Feeling happy and experiencing positive thoughts is important for our wellbeing. Where this goes wrong is when we start to see positive thinking and happy feelings as a sign of success, or as necessary to a worthwhile life. This type of thinking is, of course, constantly reinforced through advertising, television, or social media where we are constantly confronted with a sea of happy, healthy, positive looking people. The reality, for pretty much all of us, is very different. We are all plagued with thoughts of self-doubt, feelings of sadness, or experiences of pain and failure, yet this other side to our day-to-day experiences is rarely promoted.
In the book, you write about pain being crucial to real happiness – is this just a matter of contrast?
On the one hand, this is about contrast. We need contrasting experiences in life to get the most from it. This is because our pleasures and pains are always relative and we quickly habituate to both. The link between pain and happiness is also much broader and more nuanced than this. For instance, painful experiences often connect us to other people in powerful ways. It is also our painful experiences that often give experiences a sense of meaning or purpose. Take for instance running marathons or studying a university degree. Both require extensive effort, both can be painful (albeit in very different ways), but without the effort and without the possibility of failure, we would not get much satisfaction from crossing the finish line or graduating.
How do we go about changing our relationship with pain?
I think the first step here is to understand pain and its relationship to happiness differently. Pain is a part of life, not a signal of failure. We should stop treating it like a medical problem. People are reaching for painkillers and anti-depressants at an increasing frequency to cope with their unpleasant experiences in life, as if such experiences are medical conditions that need to be eradicated. By taking a different perspective on pain and understanding that often happiness is achieved by seeking out adverse experiences, we can start to engage more fruitfully with pain.
We often assume that our lives will be happier because they are more comfortable, but this doesn’t seem to be the case…
I think that making our lives easier and more comfortable is a basic human drive, yet taken to the extreme it can quickly undermine our happiness. We would rarely experience challenges in an easy, comfortable world. How would we know our capacities or strengths if we were never pushed to our limits? I doubt that we could develop a sense of meaning or purpose if we were just sitting by a pool sipping cocktails. It is often through putting our own comfort on the line for the benefit of others that gives a sense that we are important and needed in the world. People have children because the effort required to raise a child is meaningful and rewarding.
So, does this mean that we should be actively seeking pain as well as comfort?
Yes! This may sound like risky advice, but it is important to remember that discomfort and pain are not the same thing as harm. We should not be causing harm to ourselves, but we perhaps should be willing to take a few calculated risks. Perhaps we might weigh up the benefits of a holiday spent relaxing on an island resort versus visiting countries and places that expand our knowledge, test our capacity to cope, and provide us with insight into how many of the worlds populations must live. Perhaps we could find a way to meaningfully contribute our efforts to the world as well as bask in its many pleasures. In much smaller ways, we might start to appreciate that we enjoy running or exercise because it demands that we endure discomfort and pain, and benefits that come from that.