Does no pain really equal no gain?

May 2017

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Associate Professor Brock Bastian

Can we achieve happiness by maximising pleasure and minimising pain? Not so, according to work by University of Melbourne social psychologist and UniSuper member Associate Professor Brock Bastian. After watching his TEDx Talk, we spoke to him to find out more.

What drew you to study the effect pain (or lack thereof) has on people’s’ lives?

I’ve long been interested in the idea that happiness is overvalued in society. Some of our own research has identified that living in societies that overvalue happiness can lead people to feel pressured be happy. This means when they inevitably experience sadness or failure in life they respond poorly, feeling that they are failing to achieve a valued social ideal.

This led to an interest in understanding why these painful experiences may in fact be beneficial. By pain, I’m really referring to a whole raft of negative emotional experiences (e.g. loneliness, failure, sadness) as well as the more common definition which relates to negative physical experiences. We’ve been focused on physical pain in our own work, but are really interested in this broader picture.

By understanding that painful experiences are not always negative, and don’t necessary need to be harmful, we are aiming to provide a new perspective on pain—one that not only allows us to better cope with pain, but one that also highlights an important, and often overlooked, pathway to wellbeing and happiness.

What’s been the most surprising finding you’ve come across in your work? 

I think the most surprising upshot of our work has been to realise that pain is in fact necessary for happiness. This is not so much an empirical insight as a philosophical one—once you see pain for what it really is you quickly realise that without it life would not be what it is. A life full of endless pleasure sounds compelling at first, but when we think about it a little longer, it starts to sound a little flat, banal, pointless, and perhaps even dystopian.

Pain is what provides a necessary contrast in our lives, and we need contrast to experience any pleasure at all.

Perhaps the most surprising empirical finding from our work has been that shared pain literally strengthens social bonds between people, and in ways that shared pleasure is unlikely to achieve. We found that after simply sharing the painful experience of eating a hot chili pepper with a group of complete strangers, people were more likely to trust each other and cooperate towards a common goal. We called this the 'pain as social glue' effect.

Does living without pain make us happier?

No! Unless you only use the term pain to refer to chronic or harmful conditions – we are better off without those. But, if you use the term to refer to the whole range of unpleasant experiences that we have in life, then we need pain in order to experience happiness. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, when you consider what a life of endless pleasure would be like (that is a complete absence of any pain at all) it starts to sounds dystopian. This is what Aldous Huxley imagined in his book Brave New World, where people could take a substance that effectively meant they would experience constant pleasure and an absence of pain. Pain provides an important contrast to our pleasant experiences and without this we would experience very little pleasure or happiness at all.

Is there such a thing as too much or too little pain?

Yes—in fact there’s research showing that people who have experienced very little lifetime adversity are about as happy as those who have experienced very much. It is the people who experience a moderate amount of adversity in life who experience the greatest levels of wellbeing.

When thinking about single episodes of pain, however, it's important to unpack what we mean by “too much”. It is hard to say that only mild pain is good, as there are many instances in which people grow and become happier in response to intensely painful experiences. I think the key here is to think about the timeline of pain. When pain is endless, such as in the case of chronic physical pain, chronic depression, or ongoing trauma, there are few benefits. It is pain that has an end point—and it is when pain stops, that we're likely to experience its benefits

Has your research found that “no pain, no gain” is actually true? And if so, how?

Yes, although I hate that saying! Pain provides benefits that purely pleasant experiences simply cannot. Furthermore, as above, pain provides a critical contrast which is necessary for our capacity to experience pleasure and happiness at all.

We’ve also found that pain can resolve guilt, it can heighten our sensory experiences, and it can bond us to others socially. Our more recent work even suggests that sharing painful experiences in a group may indirectly increase creative output. 

I think it’s important to add that we really need to rethink our understanding of pain to see this. When pain is only seen through the lens of harm or as a medical problem, then it is hard to make sense of this. Yet, pain is really a part of our everyday lives. Most of us endure unpleasant (read ‘painful) experiences at work, when we exercise, even in our relationships (and this includes the positive ones). In fact, it is pain which gives meaning to a great many of our experiences. Imagine running a completely pain free marathon. Imagine passing a test that you were guaranteed not to fail. Our sense of achievement from these experiences is in part dependant on the fact that they do, or can, hurt. Pain is much more a part of our everyday lives that we often recognize, and what’s more we seek it out far more regularly tha we commonly realise.

Read more about Associate Professor Bastian’s work, including his upcoming book The Other Side of Happiness: Embracing Pain to Find Pleasure, by visiting his website: www.brockbastian.com.