Painful routes to happiness

To achieve happiness, can it be useful to pursue pain and discomfort?

            Many people make enormous efforts to avoid stress and strain. They will search for a convenient parking space rather than walk a few hundred meters. When the temperature gets too hot or cold, they turn on the cooling or heating. For headaches, there are analgesics. For emotional pain, therapy or maybe a stiff drink.

While avoiding pain, people often pursue pleasure. This can be comfortable chairs, tasty food, thinking positive thoughts and becoming absorbed in social media. Pleasure is commonly seen as the opposite of pain.

But what if much of this quest is misguided? That is the argument presented by Brock Bastian in his new book The Other Side of Happiness. Bastian, a psychology researcher at the University of Melbourne, reports on studies by himself and others that support a seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion: pain can be a route to true happiness.

Seeking pain

Bastian begins by noting a curious phenomenon. Despite the apparent vanquishing of both physical and emotional pain, levels of anxiety and depression in young people seem to be increasing. I noticed this among students in my classes. Colleagues who deal with student issues tell me the entire university sector is affected. Richard Eckersley has written about the problems affecting young people who, despite reporting high happiness levels, seem to suffer inordinately high levels of psychological distress.

Bastian reports on something else: the pursuit of pain. You might ask, who, except for masochists, would voluntarily seek painful experiences? Actually, quite a few do. Running a marathon is gruelling, yet surprising numbers of people see this as a worthwhile goal. Likewise climbing mountains. Eating a hot chilli pepper can be bracing. Some people get a thrill out of scary rides or jumping out of aeroplanes, even though (or because) these cause a huge adrenaline rush.

There are also painful emotional experiences. For some, singing in front of others requires enormous courage, yet this is undertaken voluntarily. Others find it nerve-racking to approach someone they revere.

            How should a psychologist go about doing controlled studies of how people handle pain, both physical and emotional? It’s hardly feasible to have subjects scale mountain cliffs or have an audience with the Queen.

For physical pain, one ingenious method is to ask subjects to hold their hands in a bucket of ice water. This is quite painful but not harmful. Before or after the ice water treatment (or, for controls, some other activity that isn’t painful), subjects then are asked to do other tasks. The way they react to these tasks reveals something about the role of pain.

For example, one experiment used a task that tested generosity, such as donating to a worthy cause. What do you think: would experiencing physical pain make people more or less generous? (The answer: more generous.)

For emotional pain, a clever technique is to simulate ostracism. In a computer game, subjects find they are being left out of the interaction by the other players. So strong is the urge to be included in a group that even in this short simulation being neglected is a distressing experience.

            As well as studies in the lab, psychologists also undertake survey research. For example, one finding is that early stress in a marriage can make it resilient in the face of future challenges, and lead to greater satisfaction.

Based on a wide range of evidence, from lab studies to studies of trauma victims, Bastian concludes that it’s better to encounter some adversity in our lives. It shouldn’t be overwhelming, just enough to build the capacity to overcome it. In this process, we become emotionally stronger. Conversely, hiding from pain gives it extra power to cause distress.

“The key to healthy psychological functioning is exposure. If we want to be happy, we cannot afford to hide from our challenges and surround ourselves in protective layers of comfort. To achieve emotional stability and the capacity to handle challenges when they arise, we may be well advised to occasionally seek out discomfort and to take ourselves outside our proverbial comfort zones more often than we do.” (p. 95)

Bringing people together

In 1980, Lindy Chamberlain’s baby Azaria was taken away by a dingo. In television interviews, she put on a brave face, hiding her grief. Unfortunately, this was damaging to her credibility, because not showing emotions makes others think you deserve your pain.

Lindy Chamberlain

            On the other hand, expressing your physical or emotional pain triggers support from others. This is observed in the outpouring of generosity after disasters. It is also observed in combat, which bonds fighters together.

Support from people you know or trust makes a difference: it actually reduces the pain. Bastian notes that even a photo of a loved one can have this effect. It is not surprising, then, that experiencing pain encourages people to seek social connections.

Keep a photo of your loved one handy

            There is another fascinating social effect of hardship: studies show it can promote creativity. So perhaps there is some truth in the stereotypical image of the struggling artist. Bastian concludes, “We need to endure the challenge of sometimes stressful, novel and potentially threatening environments to foster true originality.” (p. 125)

This idea might be used to justify unpleasant working conditions, and precarious employment. On the other hand, it could also justify reducing executive salaries and putting political leaders in small, cramped offices.

There’s an important qualification that needs to be emphasised. When discomfort is voluntary, then inhibiting desires can improve performance. An example is uncomfortable yoga postures, which can help train the mind to focus. But involuntary discomfort, for example chronic pain, reduces performance. The implication is that imposed pain should be reduced or relieved, while there should be more opportunities for voluntary discomfort.


Bastian cites eye-opening data showing that people in poorer countries report greater meaning in their lives. Perhaps this should not be such a surprise given the number of well-off people who seem to lack purpose, spending time on fleeting pleasures rather than pursuing deeper connections. Note that country comparisons can be misleading and that having a meaningful life is not the same as being happy.

Negative experiences, including being reminded of death, trigger a search for meaning, leading to a greater sense of purpose that isn’t there when there is no suffering. Bastian describes research on an earthquake emergency. People who had thoughts of dying during the earthquake were more likely to shift their priorities from extrinsic to intrinsic ones. This meant, for example, putting less priority on income and possessions and more on relationships and beliefs. Bastian concludes, “The more we consciously engage with our own mortality the more likely we are to focus on things that matter; to seek out things that are ultimately likely to provide more depth in our lives.” (p. 170)

Happiness research

The Other Side of Happiness provides a powerful counter to the usual emphases in society, in which the priority is seeking pleasure and reducing pain. It also puts a somewhat different perspective on happiness research. Happiness researchers have challenged the usual emphasis on possessions, income, good looks and education, saying that, outside of poverty, they have only a limited impact on wellbeing. Instead, changing one’s thoughts and behaviours has greater impact, for example expressing gratitude, being mindful, being optimistic, building relationships and helping others.

However, happiness research gives little attention to the benefits of physical and emotional pain. This is addressed by implication in recommendations for physical activity, building resilience and pursuing a purpose. However, the painful sides to these activities are seldom emphasised, perhaps because it is not easy to sell a recommendation for seeking pain rather than pleasure.

Brock Bastian

            Yet that is exactly Bastian’s recommendation. He says there is a need to recognise that stress, struggle and pain can bring happiness. Examples include intense exercise, having children, working hard and helping others. The key is to recognise the process, namely to see the positive side of negatives.

The takeaway message: seek out calculated risks and challenges, and let your children do the same. Search for discomfort and embrace feelings of sorrow and loss. Recognise that experiencing and valuing unpleasant experiences can be a path to greater satisfaction.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Jordan McKenzie for useful comments.