Hedonism is Overrated – to Make the Best of Life There Must Be Pain, Says This Yale Professor
The most satisfying lives are those which involve challenge, fear and struggle, says psychologist Paul Bloom
Jan 23, 2022
by Paul Bloom
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.”
…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. …
…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 …
…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.
…Alongside pleasure, there is a desire for meaningful pursuits. If this motivation is unsatisfied, life feels incomplete. …
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, Frankl studied 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’.”
…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.
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