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Yale Professor Paul Bloom on Finding the Sweet Spot of Pain, Pleasure and Suffering

Why do we so often seek out physical pain and emotional turmoil?

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.



Paul Bloom

Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University

Canadian-American psychologist. He is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His research explores the idea of human nature and how humans understand the physical and social world, with a special focus on language, morality, fiction and art. He is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. He has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of six books, including the forthcoming The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.

Linda Yueh

Economist, broadcaster, and writer

Economist, broadcaster, and writer. She is Fellow in Economics, St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford; Adjunct Professor of Economics, London Business School; and Visiting Professor, IDEAS, London School of Economics. She is the author of The Great Crashes and The Great Economists, a Times Best Business Book of 2018.  

Speakers subject to change.