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Why a meaningful life is impossible without suffering

Pain makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. What's puzzling is why so many of us choose to seek out painful experiences.
Credit: Dudarev Mikhail / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we feel pain: It trains us to avoid experiences or stimuli that harm us.
  • But that begs the question, why do so many people choose to pursue things that will bring them pain?
  • To psychologist Paul Bloom, the answer is that living a meaningful life requires that we choose to take on a reasonable amount of pain.
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John Templeton Foundation

The writer and philosopher Alan Watts once posed a thought experiment: Suppose you could dream any dream you could imagine, night after night, for as many years as you wanted.

Odds are you’d start off by pursuing fun and simple pleasures, like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. But that would inevitably get old. At some point, you’d start ceding control over your dreams because you’d desire challenge, chaos, and, eventually, suffering. 

In the end, Watts said, “You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.”

Watts’ thought experiment raises a question about how people derive meaning: Is it possible to live a meaningful life without suffering? To psychologist Paul Bloom, suffering and meaning are often inextricably linked.

“I think the way people think about meaning — our very notion of what a meaningful experience, or meaningful goal, or meaningful life is — is that it requires some degree of suffering, where suffering could be physical pain, it could be difficulty, it could be worrying, it could be the possibility of failure,” Bloom told Big Think.

The lure of the negative

Pain is evolutionarily useful for humans and other animals. It serves as an alarm system that trains us to avoid harm, whether it’s the burning sensation you feel when you accidentally touch a hot stove or the psychological discomfort you experience when you perceive rejection from your peers. 

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It makes sense that we experience pain. But what’s less obvious is why people pursue experiences that cause pain. Why do some people choose to do things like eat spicy foods, watch horror movies, compete in triathlons, fight in mixed martial arts competitions, or climb mountains?

Chosen suffering

In his book The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, Bloom explores a handful of theories on why people choose to pursue experiences that are likely to include pain, and how the resulting suffering contributes to meaning and happiness. 

One explanation for why people willfully incur pain is to enhance pleasure through contrast. Just as darkness is only possible because light exists, we experience pleasure against the backdrop of pain. In order to maximize the pleasure of an experience, you often need a big dose of its opposite. That’s one reason why a dip in the hot tub feels especially good after a frigid winter day, or why a beer tastes extra refreshing after eating a spicy dish. 

Another explanation is mastery. We feel a sense of reward when we make progress toward our goals and perform tasks well. So even though a professional boxer, for example, is sure to feel pain in the ring, that pain is likely to be outweighed by the enjoyment of performing their mastered craft. That enjoyment is likely to come, in part, from the boxer entering a flow state, which activates the brain’s dopaminergic reward system

More broadly, we seem to place greater value on accomplishments that require a lot of effort. 

“If you were in such good shape that training for a triathlon was easy, it wouldn’t have much meaning for you,” Bloom told Big Think. “But the difficulty is part and parcel of things, part of what makes it valuable.”

Suffering can also provide us with a brief escape from the self. For example, the psychologist Roy F. Baumeister proposed that people who engage in BDSM are primarily interested in escaping from “high-level self-awareness” by temporarily embodying “a symbolically mediated, temporally extended identity.” Similar to a flow state, during which all of our attention and energy is focused on a single task, painful episodes seem to snap us out of our everyday self-consciousness and into something new. 

Bloom was clear to differentiate between chosen and unchosen suffering. As in all of the examples above, chosen suffering can help us achieve different levels of pleasure and meaning. Unchosen suffering, such as chronic illness or the death of a loved one, might sometimes make us stronger in the long run or give us a sense of meaning, but it’s not necessarily good in and of itself. 

“There’s no regular rule that bad things are good for you,” Bloom told the American Psychological Association. 

Happiness and meaning

When people willfully choose to incur pain, the goal is usually to increase happiness or meaningfulness. These concepts are correlated — with research suggesting that happy people are more likely to report high levels of meaningfulness in their lives — but they’re not the same thing. 

A 2013 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology articulated some key differences between the two. Happiness, the authors wrote, is rooted in nature and centers on having our needs and desires satisfied. In contrast, meaning is more subjective and seems to depend largely on the culture in which we live. 

Another difference centers on time. The study noted that our sense of happiness depends largely on the present moment, while meaningfulness involves us integrating the past, present, and future. 

For example, drinking a cold beer after a hard day’s work might give us pleasure that briefly increases happiness, but it’s unlikely to give us meaning. Meanwhile, embarking on the long journey of raising kids will include plenty of moments of unhappiness, but for most people it gives life a deep sense of meaning. 

Meaning may be hard to define, but it seems to be the reward we earn when we pursue things we value, even when the pursuit is difficult. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”


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