Is suffering good? Author describes balancing pleasure with pain

Nov 4, 2021, 6:23 PM | Updated: Nov 5, 2021, 11:57 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Why do we choose suffering? Why do we choose to run marathons or to pay big money to climb difficult mountains, like Everest? A touch of trial and tribulation (of your choosing) might be good for you, says an author and professor.

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. He joined Inside Sources host Boyd Matheson to talk about his new book, “The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.”

People will chose difficulty and pain because it brings meaning and makes life seem fuller, said Bloom.

Kids, worth the trouble

“Children are a wonderful example. Having children, typically young children, is quite a slog, a lot of difficulty and anxiety and trouble,” Bloom said. “And if you look at it purely from the perspective of happiness, maybe you wouldn’t want to have kids. But parents very rarely regret having kids.”

Only 5% of women and 7% of men between the ages of 18 and 40 want a life without their own children, according to a survey.

Bloom said having children is one of the most important things he’s ever done. He added we are not all always looking for pleasure in life.

“We’re often looking for meaning, for close relationships, for purpose, for something bigger than ourselves,” he said.

Pleasure in purpose

Boyd said he thinks of marathoners as people who choose to suffer.

“But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s more than just the suffering itself. I think it enhances the pleasure,” he said. “Tell us a little bit more.”

Bloom said if you are looking for pleasure and joy, running a marathon is not the smart move.

“But if you ask somebody training for a marathon, they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m not doing it for the kicks. I’m doing it because it’s a challenging project,'” Bloom said. “I’m remaking myself. I have this long goal, this purpose.”

He added if you ask people in general what in life gave them the most pride, the most importance and meaning, they will say the endeavors created through stress, difficulty, and anxiety. 

Unchosen pain

In his book, Bloom said he tries to distinguish between chosen and unchosen pain.

“We choose to train for a marathon. . . Unchosen suffering, that’s the stuff that happens to us against our will. The death of a child, being assaulted . . . that’s a lot more complicated,” he said. ” . . . chosen suffering, though, could be a source of wonder.”

Bloom also said there is some evidence to support the notion that people who have survived suffering are more kind, less prone to panic in difficult situations, and have a higher pain tolerance.

“There’s something a bit strange for people who have made it to adulthood, and they’ve had very little bad happen to them,” he said.

Sweet spot

“As you look at this as a whole in terms of balancing joy, pleasure, suffering and meaning, how should we be thinking about that? What’s the right way to approach that to have a balanced and meaningful life?” Boyd asked.

Bloom said that question inspired the title of his book: Sweet spot. He added finding it can be complicated because of the many elements involved; we seek pleasure, but also meaning and morality, truth and beauty. A life as a hedonist doesn’t work for long, nor does one focused on meaning without joy.

“So we have to choose the proper balance . . . And there’s no, there’s no answer I can give you. Ultimately, everybody has to decide for themselves,” Bloom said.

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app. 

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