Paul Bloom says that happiness and suffering are closely linked. If you don’t believe it, ask a climber
Psychologist Paul Bloom can’t be the only person in the world who has wondered why anyone in their right mind would choose to train for a marathon.
Why volunteer for cramps, dehydration and bleeding toes?
While we’re at it, why choose to watch a scary movie or take on a huge project that you know will stress you out?
“Chosen suffering” is a complicated human tick, Professor Bloom tells ABC RN’s Big Ideas.
In this “hedonistic age”, we all want to have a good time, he says.
“But that’s not all we want.”
For centuries, religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as the philosophers of the Enlightenment, have debated the value of suffering.
Professor Bloom argues that suffering can provide us with goods we may not have known we needed – and even lead us to contentment.
Scratching an itch vs having kids
Professor Bloom describes two distinct types of happiness.
One is simple and in the moment. He offers some examples: “It is a very hot day and you drink a glass of very cold water; you scratch where it itches; sexual pleasure; enjoyment of food; the pleasure of being with people you love.”
The other he describes as a “deeper and broader idea of happiness”. This is where you will find morality, purpose and meaning.
take have children. They often bring with them sleep disturbances and financial and relationship strains. “So why do people say they love having kids?” he is asking himself.
“Why do people look back and say, ‘I had kids and I don’t regret it’?”
Typically, parents will say that having children was meaningful, that “it gave my life meaning, I felt like it mattered,” says Professor Bloom, also author of The Sweet Spot: the Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.
Note the tension between the two types of happiness.
“In the two different types of happiness, you see these different notions of a good life at war with each other,” says Professor Bloom.
But he says a fulfilling life requires there to be some harmony between the two.
“The project that we each have is to find the right balance”. And what that looks like is “going to differ for each person.”
He argues that for everyone else, focusing on fun while avoiding the hard stuff — like stressful chores, sleepless nights, bloody toes — isn’t a way to feel fulfilled.
“Seeking happiness – trying to be happy – is, in an interesting way, self-destructive,” he says.
“There’s a strong relationship between people who say, ‘I spend a lot of time trying to be happy’…and people who aren’t happy.”
Paradoxically, he says that the best way to be happy is not to try to be, but rather to seek other goals or activities.
The joy of getting lost in a difficult state
Activities to bring you happiness may not be the ones you think of first. Put away thoughts of a massage for a while and opt for something more stimulating – it’s more likely to bring you “flow”.
It’s something you’ve probably experienced if you’ve ever been so involved in a difficult activity that you forgot a school pickup, went for hours without eating, or just didn’t notice the passing of time..
The term “flow state” was coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe being immersed in something difficult or striving that is utterly fulfilling.
Csikszentmihalyi’s examples are often physical, such as rock climbing, or creative – musicians, writers or poets practicing their craft.
The climber or musician can “get lost… and time flies”, says Professor Bloom.
Sensation is not the same as mere physical pleasure. Csikszentmihalyi says flow is somewhere between boredom and anxiety: if something is too easy, you’ll get bored. If it is too difficult, you will become anxious.
“The flow is hard. You work on it,” says Professor Bloom.
“But something about the way our minds are wired is such that the right amount of effort and struggle really tickles us. And it’s hard to get there. Some people live their whole lives without any flow. But when you you’re here, it’s kind of wonderful.”
If all of this makes the prospect of achieving contentment difficult, or if it makes you feel a little tired, don’t be discouraged.
By not quite achieving something desirable, we are encouraged by an invisible driving force.
Professor Bloom says it’s human nature to always look for something better. By never being “too happy”, we constantly strive for more happiness.
And that’s positive propulsion, he says.
“If we were satisfied, what is the point? What’s the use of standing up? [still]?”
The conversation with Paul Bloom, moderated by Matthew Taylor, was originally recorded by the RSA Bridges to the Future podcast and aired on ABC RN’s Big Ideas.
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