Could pain make us happier?
According to Brock Bastian, psychologist and author of the other side of happiness, endless happiness is actually quite a banal and horrible idea. He argues we need painful, negative experiences to be able to fully understand and appreciate what happiness really is. We need to accept these negatives rather than try to medicate or eradicate them all.
Brock would suggest that in the developed world we are more comfortable than ever, and expect to be so, at least in a physical sense. Designer painkillers make big pharma billions each year for just this reason, we don’t like to suffer. He refers to a study which shows that taking painkillers not only reduced the negative experience of pain, but also positives ones as well, in effect numbing access our access to pleasure.
Now he would not suggest avoiding painkillers altogether, but maybe not reaching for them so readily. A holiday is particularly enjoyable after a long slog at work, food takes better after a long hike for example.
Another study he refers to comes from the University of Melbourne which showed that living in a society which expects us to be happy all the times seems to be driving depression.
Apart from a physical, protective function, pain helps with social connections, it prompts us to reach out to others, to come together, to show empathy and generosity. I think of our PhysioPilates classes as an example, which bring together clients who are or have been in pain, all working together using therapeutic exercise to help them manage better in a connected and interactive setting.
Brock cites research which shows that the more we have to endure in life, within reasonable limits, the better we get at coping with it, we become more resilient.
With regards chronic pain, he is clear that he is not suggesting anyone in chronic pain should be grateful for their experiences. However when taking a broader perspective, even in chronic cases some of the positive effects of pain can still be present, even if they do not outweigh the negatives.
Finally, Brock suggests that we consider embracing and engaging with our negative experiences a bit more, and not just in a pain sense. As examples he cites that fact that we don’t run marathons for pleasure, we run them for pain and the pleasure which comes after finishing. The joy of passing an exam is not felt as fully without the risk of failure.
What can negative experiences offer and teach us, could they make time when we are free of pain for example even more pleasurable? Food for thought anyway...