“We see pain as a threat that needs to be avoided, but the faster we run the more painful it gets.”- Dr. Bastian
When it comes to pain, our immediate instinct is to tend to the suffering we’re feeling. Whether it be a wound, heartbreak, or grief, the response to suffering allows us to focus entirely on our emotions. Recently I came across an article: “In Pursuit of Happiness: Why Pain Helps Us Feel Pleasure”, it allowed me to really focus my attention on channeling my own pain into a source of happiness. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bastian, a social psychologist who specializes in research associated with pain, happiness, and morality. His main goal is to focus on the greater fulfilment of life through social cohesion and prosperity; why happiness brings various complicated effects and how pain influences pleasure.
Below, Dr. Bastian was able to discuss the importance of shifting our focus into minimizing our pleasure to maximizing our reaction to pain. If you would like more information on how to channel your pain into happiness, I recommend reading Dr. Bastian’s article: “In Pursuit of Happiness: Why Pain Helps Us Feel Pleasure”
Check out TEDx: “Why We Need Pain to Feel Happiness”, a talk was given by Dr. Bastian.
Your article is very informative and I wanted to expand this discussion to our audience. I noticed you specialize in pain, happiness, and morality, I was wondering how these forms of research influence the field of psychology and in what way does the research impact individuals?
My research is aimed at understanding what makes for a better life. This is obviously a broad question, but I feel that it has not been studied in such a broad way in recent history. In many ways, happiness, or the “good life”, has been narrowed to a primary consideration of positive thoughts and feelings. While these experiences are good, they alone are not sufficient to produce true, lasting happiness. My work has focused on why we need to experience painful experiences in life in order to feel true happiness, and what kinds of benefits these painful experiences might have. For instance, we have found that sharing painful experiences with others promotes social bonding and cooperation.
The other aspect of this is morality or ethics if you like, is about understanding that the “good life” extends beyond the satisfaction of our own needs. It also matters how we treat others. I am interested in not just how we treat other humans, but also how we treat non-humans such as animals or natural resources. I feel that too often we have had a narrow view of what matters for people’s happiness. In fact, some of our work shows that an over-emphasis on having positive thoughts and feelings all the time can lead people to feel more depressed, lonelier, and to respond to experiences of failure more negatively. I think that culturally we have forgotten the value of pain and the importance of seeing value in life beyond the satisfaction of our own needs alone. Acting morally is often hard, it can cost us things that we might not always want to give up, but when we do, we often feel better and the returns are better in the long run.
Your TEDx talk on ‘Why We Need Pain to Feel Happiness’, discusses how viewing pain as a positive rather than a negative is encouraged; pain can actually maximize pleasure, and it brings people closer together. Do you mind elaborating more on how the positive effects of pain can improve social cohesion and still increase pleasure?
In terms of social cohesion we have found that when people share a painful experience, this increases cooperation. This helps to explain why many social rituals around the world often involve pain – they help to bond communities together. There are a number of reasons that this can happen. For instance, suffering for our social group tends to make us value that group more – it does not make much sense to suffering for something that does not matter. Also, it may be that we feel more present and therefore more aware of others when we share a painful experience. Just think of the feeling of jumping into cold water, it is pretty significant and that can make those who share that experience with us seem significant also. It may also be that these types of experiences break down our defenses and highlight something basic that we all share – the capacity to experience pain. We are still working on which of these exact reasons are most likely to explain why pain increases cooperation.
When it comes to pleasure, this is more about contrast. If we only ever experienced pleasure we would not really know it was pleasurable. We need painful experiences in life to show us what pleasure really is. Also, when our painful experiences stop we tend to get an increase in pleasure. For runner’s this is sometimes referred to as the “runners high”. But it works more broadly than this. When a negative experience ends, the relief that comes from that is pleasurable. In some cases, this can be explained by reference to neural responses, where the chemicals that our body release in response to pain is the same that facilitate the experience of pleasure. So, when the pain stops, these chemicals turn from helping us to cope with that pain to contributing to the pleasurable feeling of relief.
How does short-term and/or long-term happiness differ when it comes to experiencing relief from pain?
Short-term happiness can come from the immediate contrast that we experience when the pain stops. This is because the feeling of relief is pleasant. We often exploit this in more ways than we realize – for instance in sport, chili eating, even work can provide this type of benefit. We would never experience the pleasure of Friday night if we had not worked hard all week, and the harder we work the better Friday night feels. In the long-term, it is about more about embracing these contrasts on an ongoing basis. When we look back at our achievements, it often took pain and effort to get there. We might feel great when we reflect back on overcoming the challenge of running a marathon, but if it had not been painful it would not have this long-term meaning for us. This is true of most accomplishments in life, if they come easily we don’t value them as much.
How may someone effectively manage their happiness without letting the pain (i.e., depression, anxiety, addiction) get the best of them? Are there any ways to manage the pain in a healthy way?
There are many ways to manage these experiences better, but a powerful one is how we respond to these experiences in the first place. When we see them as lacking any value, as detracting from our lives, we tend to struggle with them. We try to avoid feeling negative thoughts and emotions. The trouble is the more we take this approach, the more we tend to have those very same thoughts and emotions. The key is how we relate to these experiences, and when we accept them and accommodate them into our lives we tend to be able to manage them better. Of course, seeing the value in these experiences – that they can have positive effects in our lives – is an important part of this process. This is not to say that there are some experiences that are overwhelming, that we would just be better off without. Sometimes we cannot help but be overwhelmed, but even here if we can find just a slither of silver lining then we will cope better than we would if we only recognized the downsides.
With the studies and research you have done/viewed on happiness, how can we apply that to someone who’s suffering from chronic pain?
Even when we are faced with pain that we would prefer not to have, even when it is debilitating and overwhelming, finding the silver lining can still contribute to better management. It is hard to manage something that is simply characterized as ‘bad’. What we know is that approaching our pain on the front foot, taking a curious approach and getting to know it better is the best way to manage it. This can be hard to do with pain (and sadness) that is overwhelming, but when we can do it there is plenty of evidence to show that it helps.
With your research, what do you hope to see from studies consisting of pain/happiness within the next year or so? What kind of breakthroughs do you anticipate?
We are now looking to study these experiences in people’s everyday lives. We are asking people to keep daily diaries, or to answer short questionnaires on their smart phones multiple times a day, to see how even mild and everyday negative experiences may be important for our happiness. We are also beginning to focus on meaning, and to understand what kinds of experiences we find meaningful in life. We have a hunch that it is not only the positive experiences, and that negative experiences may sometimes make us feel like our lives have a purpose, more so than simply pleasurable ones can.
If any, what are some challenges you’ve faced during the times of your research? How have those challenges empowered you to carry out yours?
Research is always challenging, things don’t always work out as planned (that is just how science works) and you have to keep persisting and also listen to what the data are telling you. Your papers are mostly rejected at least once or twice before they get published, and sometimes you have to struggle to maintain the belief that what you have done has any value at all. But eventually these things work out, and as I said before, you value things that are hard. It is often the papers that were the hardest to publish that I value the most. In some cases (although not all) it is the ones that have been rejected many times before getting published that have also had the most impact!
I noticed you have a book coming out next January, can you give us a sneak peek on what, ‘The Other Side of Happiness’ will touch on? What do you hope readers will take from reading your book?
Yes, I do! The Other Side of Happiness is all about understanding the value of our painful experiences in life – why we need them and what they can do for us. It challenges the assumption that happiness is only about positive thoughts and feelings, and questions whether excessive levels of comfort may even be making us more depressed. It also challenges people to take a riskier more fearless approach to finding happiness, one that often involves embracing pain and sadness. In some cases, it may even involve challenging ourselves to seek out these challenging contrasts in life. It draws on many different studies and lots of different data to make these points.
Dr. Bastian’s research raises important questions, we must appreciate and value pain, because without it there will be no sense of growth. A very valuable question was raised in Dr. Bastian’s TEDx Talk. He asked the audience what childbirth, finding love, and graduating have in common? Pain. “We experience great amounts of stress, loss, and feelings of failure, but in the end, every amount of stress and tears are all worth it.”
Appreciation: Many thanks to Dr. Bastian for being generous with his time and insights. Dr. Bastian is an associate professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Make sure to check out his book, “The Other Side of Happiness”, which will be published in January 2018.