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Why seeking pain can make you a better person

by Dr Brock Bastian
13 February 2018
Some forms of pain and suffering destroy a person. Yet pain can also be a useful tool that helps us know and avoid injuries. But social psychologist Brock Bastian takes our consideration of pain one step further – arguing that a little bit of discomfort could be good for us.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato declared that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad. There is no doubt these hedonic states feel good and bad respectively, but what does this tell us about how we should act? Should we seek pleasure and avoid pain in life – is this the right thing to do?
It is fair to say that hedonism (the seeking of pleasure) has rarely been associated with the greater good in an ethical sense. Satisfying our own personal desires is hardly considered virtuous. Most would claim that virtue comes from promoting good in other’s lives, rather than our own.
What about avoiding pain then? Is this the ‘good’ thing to do?

Immoral masochists 

Whereas seeking pleasure is perhaps considered ethically neutral, so long as it is not excessive and does not bring harm to others, seeking pain tends to arouse a different kind of response. We refer to pain seekers as masochists – a term rarely used as a compliment. Masochists are those who get pleasure from pain, with ready-to-mind examples including those who mix pain with sexual pleasure, or perhaps others who engage in the practice of suspension (being elevated into the air from hooks inserted into the flesh), body piercing, or even tattooing.
When people claim enjoyment from the sensation of pain we tend to suspect their moral character. They are hardly held up as the kind of people we want looking after our children.
I think we are largely wrong about all this, however. The fact is a great many of us, if not everyone of us, enjoys the experience of pain in some form or other. Take eating chilli, a clearly painful activity that well over two billion adults enjoy worldwide. Consider our enjoyment of marathons or many other physical challenges. If they were not even slightly painful, if they did not require us to push our bodies against the pain threshold, would we get any enjoyment from these activities at all? What about surfing, rock climbing, or cross-fit?
LISTEN: Brock Bastian addresses the ethics of happiness at The Ethics Centre. Stream or download the podcast through ABC RN’s Big Ideas.

Hurts so good

The psychologist Paul Rozin introduced the term Benign Masochism to capture the extent to which people enjoy innately negative experiences. This includes roller coaster rides, sad or scary movies, bungee jumping, diving into cold water, squeezing pimples (come on, you know you like it!), and bitter or burning substances like coffee and whisky (yes, hardly painful, but they do involve innately negative qualities).
Most fascinating is that Rozin found many people enjoy painful experiences when they are at the threshold of what they can stand. That is, people reported their enjoyment peaked just before the experience became unbearable. While our enjoyment of these benign pains may not be exactly the same thing as hanging from hooks inserted into our skin, the difference between that and pimple popping is better described as a matter of degree than as of a different kind.
Seeking pain is perhaps not so clear a sign of a sick character as we might think – we all do it much of the time. But, can seeking pain be the good or right thing to do?

Make friends with pain

Pain has an intensely social side. People who experience pain are more likely to value their relationships with others because those relationships are good for coping with pain. What’s more, watching people in pain activates a visceral empathy. My own research has demonstrated that sharing even mild pain with others (we asked people to put their hands in buckets of iced water, do leg squats, or eat hot chilli in groups) increases a sense of bondedness with each other. When faced with an economic decision making task, study participants were more likely to choose a trusting and cooperative option if they had just shared a painful experience compared to a similar but non-painful experience.
Another reason that seeking pain may be good is it can add value to things – make them more meaningful and important. Researchers have found people donated more money to charity if they held their hand in an iced water first. This may seem exceptionally unusual. Why would people give more when they had just endured the cost of pain? Yet about twelve months after this study came out the ALS ice bucket challenge went viral, raising an unprecedented amount of money for this disease. People all over the world were dousing themselves with buckets of iced water and reaching deep into their pockets at the same time.
There is one more reason why seeking pain may be the ‘good’ thing to do. Making a meaningful contribution to the world, impacting positively in the lives of others, hardly ever comes about through seeking pleasure. Engaging in acts that benefit others, more-often-than-not, comes at the cost of satisfying our own desires. Bringing about good in the world requires effort, hard work, and persistence. Luckily for us, engaging with these hardships is about the most meaningful thing we can do – and a meaningful life is indeed a good and happy life. Such a life is never won though the pursuit of pleasure. Rather it requires us to seek out pain. Who knows, perhaps we might even enjoy it!
Dr Brock Bastian is is a social psychologist whose research focuses on pain, happiness, and morality. He covers these ideas in his book, The Other Side of Happiness: Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living


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