Can a little pain make your life happier?


What do chocolate cake, a funny movie, and life coaching have in common?

In almost every area of life, we devote considerable energy towards the pursuit of happiness. Whether this takes the form of good food, a satisfying job, stylish clothing, or social fulfillment, the idea that we can maximize happiness by increasing pleasure and reducing pain is intuitive. Entire industries are founded with the goal of improving comfort and happiness.

But should our lives really be pain-free? Does unpleasantness really compromise our overall satisfaction with life?

It turns out that pleasure alone cannot make us happy.

Consider wealthy celebrities, who have the money to indulge in whatever tickles their fancy and enough fans so they never have to dine alone. We have all heard stories of famous actors and musicians, who, despite their wealth and popularity, struggle with severe depression and anxiety.

If money cannot buy happiness, then what can?

The answer is pain.

Pain enhances pleasure

In his research, Brock Bastian, Ph.D., demonstrates how pain provides a contrast to pleasure. Without pain, our lives would be dull and boring. Just like hunger makes us enjoy our favorite foods, we need discomfort to remind us why we desired the pleasurable experience in the first place.

One example of the pleasurable effects of pain is the runners high. After athletes physically exert themselves, they experience a euphoria similar to someone on opioids. This endorphin rush is not possible without the physical exertion.

Pain puts us in touch with the physical world and connects us with the experience at hand. This is the ultimate form of mindfulness. If you have ever stubbed your toe, you know that the few moments of pain that follow are so intense that it is difficult to think of anything else.

This is why feel more pleasure sipping a cold soda after mowing the lawn under the sun or a hot coffee after being out in the snow. Pain puts us in touch with our sensory experiences and allows us to enjoy the intensity of the moment.

This does not only refer to physical pain, but to emotional pain and life disappointments as well.

Raising a "pain-free" generation

In our society today, parents exert themselves to protect their children from stressful situations and blows to their self-esteem. Today's well-intentioned parents try to prevent their children from experiencing pain and failure. This trend is reflected in our education system. Whereas in the 1980's, B's and C's were the most common grades among university students, by 2008, A's had become the most prevalent. You may think that this protection from failure and disappointment would result in greater happiness and success. In fact, over the course of this same period, rates of depression and anxiety have increased. By shielding children from challenging experiences, parents have made their children less resilient and more emotionally vulnerable.

Pain builds relationships and community

If you have ever felt closer to a friend after confiding a painful experience, you have seen how pain bonds us with others. After a natural disaster or tragedy, it is common for communities to mobilize and come together to help. Without the existence of suffering, humans would live meaningless, isolated lives.

Changing the value of pain

We have come to believe that our lives are supposed to be free of pain. From this perspective, pain is a threat that must be eradicated. Many people who have suffered adversity tell us that it is possible to be happy, despite having experienced pain. But Brock Bastian demonstrates a far more revolutionary idea. We need pain in order to be happy.

We need to recognize the value of pain in our lives. Framing pain as a positive instead of a negative enables us to better cope and feel happier with our lot when life inevitably veers from our plans.

Reach out for help today

If you need help achieving a happier, more fulfilling life, contact our therapists or coaches today. Contact one of our therapists today to learn more about how they can help or to learn more about online therapy.

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24 Jul 2018


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