The simplest theory of human nature is hedonism—we pursue pleasure and comfort. Suffering and pain are, by their very nature, to be avoided. The spirit of this view is nicely captured in The Epic of Gilgamesh: “Let your belly be full, enjoy yourself always by day and by night! Make merry each day, dance and play day and night… For such is the destiny of men.” And also by the Canadian rock band Trooper: “We’re here for a good time / Not a long time / So have a good time / The sun can’t shine every day.”
Hedonists wouldn’t deny that life is full of voluntary suffering – we wake up in the middle of the night to feed the baby, take the 8.15 into the city, undergo painful medical procedures. But for the hedonist, these unpleasant acts are seen as the costs that must be paid to obtain greater pleasures in the future. Challenging and difficult work is the ticket to survival and status; boring exercise and unpleasant diets are what you have to go through for abs of steel and a vibrant old age, and so on.
Plainly there’s something right here. Nobody could doubt we possess drives for food, sex, status and much else – and that much of our suffering is chosen with these ends in mind.
But I think hedonism is an awful theory. My latest book, The Sweet Spot: Suffering, Pleasure, and the Key to a Good Life, makes the case for a different theory of what people want. I argue that we don’t only seek pleasure, we also want to live meaningful lives– – and this involves willingly experiencing pain, anxiety, and struggle. We see value in chosen suffering.
After all, people willingly climb mountains, run marathons, or get punched in the face in gyms and dojos. Others, mostly young men, choose to go to war and, while they don’t wish to be maimed or killed, they are hoping to experience challenge, fear and struggle– – to be baptised by fire, to use the clichéd phrase. Some of us choose to have children, and usually we have some sense of how hard it will be; maybe we even know of all the research showing that, moment by moment, the years with young children can be more stressful than any other time of life, (And those who don’t know this ahead of time will quickly find out.) and yet we rarely regret our choices.
Strangely enough, then, we often choose to suffer. A better story of our nature was nicely expressed in the movie The Matrix, where Agent Smith tells Morpheus how the world they are experiencing – a simulation created by malevolent computers – came to be: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the programme, entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
Why would we ever choose to suffer? Sometimes, as a hedonist would tell you, it’s for the sake of tangible goals. Pain can distract us from our anxieties and even help us transcend the self. Choosing to suffer can serve social goals – it can display how tough we are or serve as a cry for help. Unpleasant emotions, such as fear and sadness, are part of play and fantasy and can provide moral satisfaction. And effort and struggle and difficulty can, in the right contexts, lead to the joys of mastery and flow.
But there’s more. The economist George Loewenstein gives the example of serious mountaineering. The pleasures here are not obvious, to say the least; rather, it seems to be “unrelenting misery from end to end”. Diaries and journals by climbers talk about “relentless cold (often leading to frostbite and loss of extremities, or death), exhaustion, snow-blindness, altitude sickness, sleeplessness, squalid conditions, hunger, fear…” There is constant craving for food. And there is boredom: “On a typical ascent, the vast majority of time is spent in mind-bogglingly monotonous activities – for example, being ‘weathered out’ for many hours in a small smelly tent crammed in with other climbers.” Climbers describe their experiences as lonely and alienating, spending days and weeks in bitter silence, with disagreements that don’t get smoothed over. And yet people do it, and then do it again and again, getting some satisfaction that doesn’t reduce in any real way to pleasure.
Apparently, then, for at least some of us, a life well lived is more than a life of pleasure and happiness. I side with the economist Tyler Cowen, who wrote: “What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness. Pluralist theories are more plausible, postulating a variety of relevant values, including human wellbeing, justice, fairness, beauty, the artistic peaks of human achievement, the quality of mercy, and the many different and, indeed, sometimes contrasting kinds of happiness. Life is complicated.”
Alongside pleasure, there is a desire for meaningful pursuits. If this motivation is unsatisfied, life feels incomplete. This tweet, from Greta Thunberg, captures a pretty typical reaction to finding meaning in one’s life: “Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder. All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people.”
Viktor Frankl came to a similar conclusion. In his early years as a psychiatrist in Vienna, in the 1930s, Frankl studied depression and suicide. During that period, the Nazis rose to power, and they took over Austria in 1938. Not willing to abandon his patients or his elderly parents, Frankl chose to stay, and he was one of the millions of Jews who ended up in a concentration camp – first at Auschwitz, then Dachau. Ever the scholar, Franklstudied his fellow prisoners, wondering about what distinguishes those who maintain a positive attitude from those who cannot bear it, losing all motivation and often killing themselves.
He concluded the answer is meaning. Those who had the best chance of survival were those whose lives had broader purpose, some goal or project or relationship, some reason to live. As he later wrote (paraphrasing Nietzsche): “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
As a psychiatrist, Frankl was interested in mental health. But his plea for a life of meaning – a central part of the therapy he developed once he left the camps – wasn’t merely based on the notion that this would provide happiness or psychological resilience. He believed that this is the sort of existence we should want to pursue. He was sensitive to the distinction between happinessand what Aristotle described as eudaemonia – literally “good spirit,” but referring to flourishing in a more general sense. It was eudaemonia that mattered to Frankl.
How do we get from meaning to suffering? There is a wealth of scientific evidence suggesting a connection. Individuals who say their lives are meaningful report more anxiety and worry and struggle than those who say that their lives are happy. The countries where citizens report the most meaning tend to be poor ones where life is relatively difficult. (In contrast, the countries with the happiest people tend to be prosperous and safe.) The jobs that people say are most meaningful, such as being a medical professional or a member of the clergy, often involve dealing with other people’s pain. And when asked to describe the most meaningful experiences of our lives, we tend to think about those on the extremes, very pleasant – and very painful.
It’s not that we seek out suffering. Rather, we seek out meaning and purpose. But part of meaning and purpose is difficulty – anxiety, stress, conflict, boredom, and often physical and emotional pain. We choose pursuits we know will test us – training for a marathon, raising children, climbing Everest – because we know at a gut level that these are the pursuits that matter.
After all, wouldn’t a life without some suffering ultimately be boring? I’ll end with another origin story, this one from Alan Watts, the British philosopher and popular interpreter of Zen Buddhism.
Watts begins by asking you to imagine that you are able to dream about whatever you want, with perfect vividness. Given this power, you could, in a single night, have a dream that lasted 75 years. What would you do? Obviously, he says, you’d fulfil all your wishes, choose every sort of pleasure. It would be a hedonistic blowout.
Then suppose you can do it again the next night, and then the next, and the next. Soon, Watts says, you would say to yourself: now let’s have a surprise, a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me but I don’t know what it’s gonna be.
And then you would continue to gamble, adding increasing add risk, uncertainty, ignorance, deprivation. You would put obstacles in your way, obstacles you might not be able to overcome, until finally you would dream the dream of living the life you are actually living today.
Is your life right now – with its difficulty and struggle, worry and loss – the best that life can be? Probably not. But Watts’s fantasy is close enough to the truth to be profound.
The Sweet Spot: Suffering, Pleasure and the Key to a Good Life by Paul Bloom is published by Bodley Head at £20. Buy it for £17.40 at guardianbookshop.com