Full text of Brock Bastian’s talk: Why we need pain to feel happiness at TEDxStKilda conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Why we need pain to feel happiness by Brock Bastian
Brock Bastian – Social psychologist
So today I’d like to talk to you about pain. Not just physical pain, but also emotional pain.
As a social psychologist, I’m interested in how we think about pain, and the thing is I think that we’ve been sold a lie.
Take a look at this slogan here from Panadol, one of the biggest painkillers on the market in Australia today: “When pain is gone, life takes its place.”
Let me tell you a story about Panadol.
About six years ago, my wife and I had children. Now I say my wife and I… but what I actually mean is my wife had children and I watched. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but women have this incredible ability to forget the details of the birth process.
This is probably for adaptive reasons, because if you remember what I remember, you would never go back and do it again.
What I remember is thinking to myself, there is a design flaw here. This is simply not going to happen. My wife is going to turn around to me at any moment and say, “Nope, this is not happening. Let’s just go home”.
Well, it did happen. In fact, she gave birth to twins and she did it completely naturally, not even a Panadol passed her lips.
I, on the other hand, did have a Panadol because I developed a stress related headache.
This experience taught me two things. The first thing that my pain threshold is much lower than my wife’s.
The second has to do with something that she said to me right in the midst of the birth process. She looked at me. The pupils of her eyes fully dilated and she said,“This feels so good.” Now I’m not joking. I wouldn’t make that up, no matter how about her memory.
This made me realize that the distinction between pain and pleasure is not as obvious as it may at first seem.
You know the pain killing industry is massive, not only for physical pain but also for emotional pain. We’re told that the pain free life, the happy life is the good life.
Yet on the flip side, even common and everyday mild experiences of pain and sadness are viewed as pathological, as things that need to be medicated and eradicated.
From this perspective, pain is simply something which gets in our way of being happy in life.
But is this the right way to be looking at pain? Could this be leading to other sorts of problems?
You know, our belief that we should avoid pain is also evident in how we are raising our children. We want to protect our children from taking risks, from experiencing pain and failure and loss in life.
We believe that our children should be happy and pain free, and this is evident in the ‘everyone wins’ mentality that seems to be merged with in recent years.
Did you know that in the 1960s, B’s and C’s were the most common grades awarded to students in American colleges and universities?
But by 2008 A’s had become the most common. It seems that even our educational systems have been shaped by this belief that our children should be protected from failure and disappointment in life.
But this mollycoddling is having devastating consequences. Over this same period of time, narcissistic personality traits have been on the rise. It’s no wonder we talk about the age of entitlement. Over this same period of time, depression has been on the rise.
You know, it’s interesting we vaccinate our children because we know that giving them a small amount of a pathogen will build their biological immune system, will strengthen their biological immunities, so they can deal better with that pathogen in the future.
Yet we forget that the same principle applies psychologically. Exposing our children to pain and failure and loss, it strengthens his psychological immune system. It builds his psychological immunity so they can deal better with those experiences in the future.
By protecting our children from these experiences, we’re making them less resilient and more emotionally vulnerable.
My interest in pain is not from the clinical perspective, but rather from the social perspective. I’m interested in how we value pain and how this feeds in to our assumptions about happiness.
I want you to just right now to think about a pleasure that you really enjoy. Okay? Just have a quick think.
Who just thought about chocolate? People love chocolate. It has two of the most rewarding substances known to man: fat and sugar.
Now I want you to just take a moment and imagine placing a square of your favorite chocolate in your mouth and just letting it slowly melt.
Okay, now take, take another. Do the same thing again. Take another. Why not take it, take, take four.
In fact, a group of researchers did this and they found that after the fifth piece of chocolate, people started to write the experience as unpleasant.
And after the seventh though, indicating that eating another would make them feel sick. And this is completely crazy, right? Because I can eat at least seven pieces of chocolate and still enjoy the experience.
But I think the point is clear, even for the chocolate-holics among us, you can’t eat chocolate endlessly. It will eventually make you feel sick.
So pleasure can quickly turn to pain, but just so pain can also turn to pleasure. One of the reasons that pain can turn to pleasure is that both pain and pleasure activate the same neural regions in our brain. They both activate the release of opioids.
Now, opioids are kind of like the body’s natural Panadol. They act to reduce pain, but it just so happens they also increase our experience of pleasure.
Now, anyone who is a runner here will know exactly what I mean. Runners often refer to an experience of euphoria after a particularly intense run. This is commonly referred to as the runner’s high.
By pushing our body against the pain threshold, we are literally able to increase our experience of pleasure in life.
Yet, if we seek endless pleasure, it quickly turns to pain. This doesn’t mean that we should be seeking endless pain either. It seems that maybe some pain is best.
A group of researchers asked people whether they had any of these sorts of experiences in their lives. Now, these are some pretty traumatic and serious events. This is known as a measure of lifetime adversity.
Now, after people indicated how much adversity they had in their lives, the researchers asked them to put their hand into a bucket of ice water and hold it there for as long as they could. This is what they found:
You can see the dotted line there running from left to right. That’s how long people held their hand into the bucket of ice water. The people on the left are the people with little lifetime adversity. They took their hand out more quickly.
The people on the right are the people with a lot of lifetime adversity. They held their hand in the ice bucket for longer.
What’s interesting is if you look at the black line, both of these groups reported more pain. It was the people in the middle, the people with a moderate amount of lifetime adversity. You held their hand in the ice bucket just as long as anybody else did, but they reported the least amount of pain. They cope the best.