A life without suffering is a life without meaning.
But this is a paradox. We spend most of our life trying to avoid things like pain, fear, and grief — yet, sometimes, we seek them out. We watch sad movies. We push our bodies to the limit with extreme exercise. Why?
There are two reasons: (1) There is a difference between chosen and unchosen suffering. (2) The good things in life only make sense if there are also bad things. Without the bad, the good loses meaning.
PAUL BLOOM: If you wanna live a life of meaning you have to choose to some extent, a life of suffering. You might wonder, "Why would evolution be so malevolent to curse us with pain?" But there's actually a perfectly good evolutionary argument for this. It serves the function of training you to avoid things that damage the body. Just like hunger drives you to food and lust drives you to sex, pain pushes you away from things that would hurt you. But that sets up a puzzle, which is if the purpose of pain, and fear, and grief, and all of that is to avoid them, why do we sometimes seek them out? Why do we go to movies that scare us? Why do we do things like push our bodies to the limit? So where is the lure of the negative? Why are we drawn towards them? And that's the puzzle, which I'm very interested in.
I'm Paul Bloom. I'm a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and my new book is called "The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and a Search for Meaning."
There's a world of difference between chosen suffering, which I think has all sorts of benefits, and unchosen suffering. Unchosen suffering like: chronic pain. Like: your child dies, your house burns down, you lose your job, you get assaulted. Sometimes they can strengthen you. Sometimes they can build you up spiritually or emotionally or even physically. But for the most part, they're bad for you. Avoid them. Avoid them, if you can. I think the real value in life, the richness is found in chosen suffering. So Alan Watts has this wonderful story he tells. He says, imagine you go to sleep one night and you find yourself in a lucid dream.
You could dream whatever you want. Any sort of joy, pleasure, any experience you want. If you could fantasize about it, you could experience it. Then you wake up the next morning and you get to have whatever dream you want again. And again, it's a lucid dream. And again, you explore pleasure and all sorts of excitement. But sooner or later, Watts points out, you're gonna get bored of this. What you're gonna do is you're gonna throw out some obstacles. You're gonna set up the possibility for failure. You're gonna set up situations where you do fail, because if you don't fail, then the successes mean nothing and soon you'll be living a life in your dreams of complexity, of struggle, of pain. And then he says you'll be living a life much like the life you live now.
There's a deep insight here which is that the good things in life only make sense relative to the bad things. If you win every competition you engage in there's no fun to it. You have to have the possibility of loss. If all of your experiences are positive they cease to become positive, you need a negative. From a Darwinian perspective, it's no mystery why we seek out good food, good sex, good company, all of that good stuff. But people do more than that. People often choose to suffer, and they do so in ways that go from small to the big. So the small, something like hot chilies, working your way through a crossword puzzle, saunas, hot baths, scary movies, massage pain, running till it hurts. Moving it up a bit, some people willingly engage in projects that involve a lot of suffering and difficulty.
No one who decides to have a kid is unaware that this is gonna be difficult. If you were in such good shape that training for a triathlon was easy, it wouldn't have much meaning for you. But the difficulty is part and parcel of things. Part of what makes it valuable. I've long been interested in the relationship between a life of meaning and chosen suffering. Meaning, and now we're sort of away from the spicy food, crossword puzzle. Meaning, in the broad sense, is intimately related to the more heavy duty suffering and difficulty. I would go so far as to say that if it's not hard at some level, if you don't look back on it and sort of shudder a bit, it probably isn't meaningful. There was a survey done of over a million people and the survey asked, what's your job? And then they asked how meaningful is your job?
And the most meaningful jobs were not the jobs that were high status, nor were they the jobs that paid the most. They were jobs like being an educator, a medical professional, in the military, that involve struggle and difficulty. So we see in our lives a whole spectrum of suffering from things so mild, they barely deserve the name, you know eating some spicy food, or working your way through a crossword puzzle. No reward, nothing.
You just do it because it's hard. All the way to the sort of pursuits that structure our lives. And I actually, I'm gonna make a pretty strong claim here. I think that 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. But stripped of that, the experience isn't meaningful. We need pain and suffering to have rich and happy lives.