Why accepting and facing pain can make us happier
15 May 2023
In Julian Barnes’ book A History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters the narrator gets a sneak preview of heaven and discovers that it is an endless experience of pleasure - he plays golf for many years and gets so good he gets a hole in one every time, then he goes on to master every other sport, has constant access to the most delicious food and can have sex with beautiful women every night.
But he eventually realises there is something missing in this existence of endless pleasure and positive experiences.
The story taps into the belief that many of us have, that our goal should be a life free of pain (either physical or emotional), and that if we encounter pain we should try to get rid of it as soon as possible.
Part of our strategy for avoiding or distracting ourselves from pain is to seek out pleasurable experiences, whether that be planning a holiday or shopping online or zoning out to our favourite box set and a bottle of wine.
Pleasurable experiences are an important part of life but we need more than these to have a genuinely fulfilling existence. Seeking to avoid or escape from emotional pain, such as anxiety, sadness or frustration can cut us off from an essential part of our experience and actually make it harder for us to experience joy.
This also applies to physically demanding tasks, such as a workout at the gym, where research has shown that the physical pain or discomfort of intense physical activity releases endorphins that bring pleasure.
One of the problems with assuming that seeking pleasure is the source of happiness is that we get to used to things so quickly. When we first buy that 50 inch TV it gives us a lot of pleasure - four weeks later we’ve got used to it and barely notice the size of the screen any more.
When we look back at our lives we tend to remember most vividly our experiences of extreme highs and lows. When we recall an extremely challenging experience in our life we can acknowledge the internal resources we were able to draw on to meet that challenge or get through that period.
The intensity of a painful experience is what often creates an intensely joyful or happy feeling. This can be seen in physical challenges. A tough workout at the gym or climbing a mountain are usually followed by feelings of satisfaction and positivity, both physically and emotionally.
Trying too hard to avoid pain can actually reduce our capacity for joy. I have seen many clients who have taken anti depressants and found that, while they reduce the intensity of low feelings they also muffle the positive feelings.
Psychologist Brock Bastian, in his book The Other Side of Happiness*, notes that fearing pain tends to make it worse. “If you stop to consider the happiest moments in your life, they are usually experienced on a knife-edge between pleasure and pain. Whether it is finding your true love, holding your newborn baby for the first time, or a great professional achievement, all of these moments of happiness are couched in the potential for suffering, loss or failure.”
Bastian, Brock, 2018, The Other Side of Happiness, Penguin Random House.