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.
Now, what’s interesting is this same group of researchers in a different study asked people about their levels of happiness and well-being in life and they found the same pattern again. It was the people with a moderate amount of lifetime adversity who were the happiest, who had the highest levels of wellbeing.
It just so happens they ran that survey over the period of the 9/11 attacks in New York so they could assess how people coped with the stress and trauma of that experience. And again, they found the same pattern. It was the people with a moderate amount of lifetime adversity who coped the best.
So it seems that some pain really can build resilience.
So, so far I’ve told you that pain can increase our experience of pleasure in life, and that some pain can build resilience. If you’re more impressed with pain now than you were at the beginning of this talk, wait until I tell you some other ways that pain can make your life better.
Pain can also increase our presence in life. Imagine making a sandwich and as you’re making that sandwich, you slit with a knife and you cut your finger. Now what do you do? Do you continue to make the sandwich or do you attend to your finger?
Of course you attend to your finger. This is the function of pain. It interrupts everything else that we’re thinking and feeling and doing. And it makes us focus on what’s happening right here and right now.
This is one of the reasons that people self-harm. The pain of self-harm distracts people who have a lot of negative thoughts and negative feelings. It brings them into the present, makes them more engaged with what’s happening right here and right now.
Let’s engage with those negative thoughts and feelings, but you don’t have to cut yourself to get that kind of effect.
I mean, how many of us go for an extra long run when we’re feeling bad or perhaps for an extra hard workout at the gym?
The pain in those experiences works in the same way: it stops us worrying about yesterday and tomorrow. It makes us more engaged with the present, with what’s happening right here and right now.
What’s interesting is that, you know, mindfulness gurus have been teaching people to do this for a very long time. In some ways it seems like pain is like a shortcut to mindfulness.
Pain can also create meaning. It can give things a sense of purpose. Imagine running a marathon right. Now imagine running a pain-free marathon. It will be just as easy as sitting at home on your couch watching television; what would the point be?
Imagine asking someone to sponsor you to run a pain-free marathon.
“Excuse me, give me $50 to run a pain-free marathon.”
“No… I’m not going to give you a $50 to run a pain-free marathon. I want to see you experience some pain to get that $50.”
This is true, right? I mean, who remembers the ALS ice bucket challenge?
People poured buckets of ice water over their heads and challenged other people to do the same, and in doing so, they raised an unprecedented amount of money for a good cause, a disease called ALS.
Imagine that was a bucket of confetti. What if it was eat a chocolate bar for the ALS challenge? It just wouldn’t have worked. It was the pain of the ice water, which made the cause worth our time and our money.
Pain can also make us better people. I was living in Brisbane during the 2011 floods. People lost their homes and their livelihoods to the muddy waters of the Brisbane River.
But this tragedy led to an outpouring of human generosity. 55,000 people turned up to help with the cleanup effort. At the end of the day, cleaning up was the easy part. It was knowing what to do with the 55,000 people, that was the hard part.
Now, as an experimental psychologist, this got me interested. You know, I wondered, could I re-create this effect of pain building community and cooperation within groups, even in the lab, even with just mild experiences of pain.
So to do this, I had groups of students come into the lab and I had them play a game where we could assess the levels of cooperation within each of the groups.
But before they came in, before they played that game, we had them share. We had each of the different groups share different kinds of experiences.
Half the group shared an experience of eating a boiled sweet, about a butterscotch, relatively pleasant. The other half the groups weren’t so lucky. They shared the experience of eating a bird’s eye chili pepper raw and whole. It’s like okay, we have them simulate afterwards. It was fun.
What’s fascinating is that just as the Brisbane floods increased co-operation, so did sharing a chili pepper with a group of strangers. It’s not about advert for the value of sharing good curry with friends.
So hopefully I’ve managed to convince you that the pain is not all bad, that it can add to our lives in important and meaningful ways.
But you know, what are you going to do with this information? Stop eating chocolate jumping ice water, indulging some sort of communal chili eating?
Maybe. Maybe, you know, I think there’s more to it than this. I mean, have you ever stopped to consider how comfortable our lives really are today? We live in climate controlled houses. We have endless hot water for warm showers.
We have electricity to power our lights and our devices. We wear fine fabrics. We walk in shock absorbing shoes. We sit in comfort adjustable seats. We choose which brand of water to drink and which cuisine to dine-out on any night of the week.
And should even a small amount of pain pierce its way through this pleasure enhancing artillery, we have a painkiller for every occasion.
So why is it then these myths of our capacity to maximize pleasure and minimize pain?
Are we experiencing an increase in pain problems, an increase the number of pain clinics and a reliance on pain related medication, an increase in depression, an increase in anxiety and the use of mood-stabilizers and stress-reducers?
You see, I think the answer lies in our relationship to pain. We’ve come to believe that our lives are supposed to be free of pain. And from this perspective, pain is a threat that needs to be avoided. But the faster we run, the more painful it gets.
You’ve heard people say that you can be happy in spite of your pain. What I want to tell you today is far more revolutionary than that. What I want to tell you today is that we need pain to be happy.
If you ask people what are the happiest moments of their lives, they’ll tell you these three things: giving birth to their first born, graduating from an important course, and finding a love of their lives.
But if we break these experiences down to find out what makes them truly powerful sources of happiness, we will find pain and failure and loss.
Giving birth occurs in the context of great pain. Graduating is only so grand because you could have failed miserably.
And finding the love of your life, well that exposes you to the possibility of great loss.
I think we need to build a new view of pain, one which starts to appreciate its value in our lives. Because the fact is without pain, we can never experience any happiness at all.