Pain or Pleasure- which gives us the most meaning and happiness in life?
The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning
Paul Bloom 2021
Can you have too much pleasure in life? Does a life of leisure and pleasure-seeking leave one empty and unfulfilled? And does an occasional bout of struggle or suffering propel us into more meaningful lives? These questions and more are looked at in this thought-provoking book by psychologist Paul Bloom. Human beings can be complicated characters- craving sex and sugar in one minute and then subjecting themselves to pain and degradation in the next? How do you explain the popularity of sad movies, extreme sports, or Sado-Masochism?
Paul Bloom is a Yale professor of psychology and cognitive science, where, according to Goodreads, "His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art."
I loved the title of this book, as it's a central idea in the pursuit of balance and harmony. Extremes of pain and pleasure don't serve us well, but finding a balance, or sweet spot, is what gives us both meaning and satisfaction.
The author says that some forms of chosen suffering are valuable in life. To attain real achievement, we all have to subject ourselves to hard work, struggles, and obstacles that need to be overcome. Sometimes this involves physical pain, but often it involves inconvenience, mental effort, or expanding our comfort zones. Think about the most meaningful things in your life- children, diplomas, work accomplishments, milestones- the most important ones often came from the hardest struggles.
While some types of chosen suffering are recreational- like going to a haunted house or seeing a sad movie, the more meaningful types involve extended effort and sacrifice around work, family, or community. Bloom looks at why we choose to subject ourselves to unpleasant things like hot super-spicy wings, BDSM, cold baths, horror movies, or fraternity hazing. There is a theory that brief periods of "safe" pain that leaves no lasting damage makes us feel better in contrast once it is removed. Pain and suffering can focus the mind, or it can extinguish the mind as the self gets consumed by a ritual or powerful feeling. Sometimes the thrill that comes with pain or threat of danger is accompanied by endorphins and natural highs that make the pain seem worthwhile.
We all have a different sweet spot, and we all yearn for challenges that are invigorating but not too much so. The dividing line between boredom and exhaustion is hard to define, but finding that flow is what makes our lives the most satisfying. Too much leisure or too much struggle can destroy a person. We all need to find an acceptable level of suffering to produce meaning in our lives. You don't need to go to war, found a business, or have twelve children to create optimal meaning. Sometimes it's small acts of kindness that make the most difference.
The author describes meaningful activity as something that moves us toward a goal that impacts the world, creates belonging, and expands the self. Would you rather stay in an ice hotel in Canada or a beach resort in Florida? One could be tough but very memorable and meaningful, while the other would be pleasant but eventually forgettable.
The idea that unchosen suffering makes us better is debatable. The author tells stories of people who've experienced horrible traumas, but look back on them as the best thing that's ever happened. In the face of tragedy, there is enormous effort to find the silver lining. We want to know that people didn't die for nothing. So we construct powerful stories that try to balance out the pain. But the bottom line is that real trauma like war, rape, gun violence, or bullying leaves lasting psychological damage, especially if prolonged. Sometimes unchosen suffering makes us more resilient and self-confident, but other times it makes us feel awful about ourselves and the world. With chosen suffering, we get to control our pain somewhat, which gets us to the sweet spot much faster.
Those who've never experienced struggle or vulnerability are at a loss for what to do when something actually happens to them. We all need to build resilience in the face of inevitable hardships, and that is the message of the sweet spot. Nothing of value comes by just stumbling upon it. Relationships must be built and negotiated. Businesses must be able to overcome all sorts of trials and tribulations. Even our body has to be able to get sick and repair itself multiple times in our lives. And without the feelings of sadness, we would never get to appreciate joy.
This is an interesting book full of powerful thoughts, though I doubt most will read it because watching a kitten video on YouTube is much easier and simpler. Hopefully each of us will stumble upon our own sweet spots as we go through life. The pursuit of pleasure only is an empty and lonely one, and the pursuit of pain is self-destructive. But in the right combination, these two can work miracles.