Why do we so often seek out physical pain and emotional turmoil? We go to movies that make us cry, scream or gag. We poke at sores, eat spicy foods, immerse ourselves in hot baths, run marathons. Some of us even seek out pain and humiliation for sexual pleasure. Where do these seemingly perverse appetites come from?
Drawing on groundbreaking findings from psychology and neuroscience, Yale University professor Paul Bloom believes he has discovered why the right kind of suffering sets the stage for enhanced pleasure. Pain can distract us from our anxieties and help us transcend the self. Choosing to suffer can serve social goals; it can display how tough we are or, conversely, it can function as a cry for help. Feelings of fear and sadness are part of the pleasure of immersing ourselves in play and fantasy and can provide certain moral satisfaction. And effort, struggle and difficulty can, in the right contexts, lead to the joys of mastery and flow.
But, as Bloom asserted, suffering plays a deeper role as well. We are not natural hedonists – a good life involves more than pleasure. People seek lives of meaning and significance; we aspire to rich relationships and satisfying pursuits, and this inevitably involves struggle, anxiety and loss. In November 2021, Bloom came to Intelligence Squared to discuss the findings contained in his new book The Sweet Spot, and explained how a life without chosen suffering would be empty –and perhaps worse than that, boring.
Speakers subject to change.