top of page
0sweetspot.png

The Sweet Spot:

The Pleasures of Suffering

and the Search for Meaning

by Paul Bloom

After finishing this book in June of 2023, I wrote,

 

"The author Paul uses the word happiness in a more restricted sense that does not include the fulfillment of meaning as an integral part of happiness as I do. That being said, I was continuously stimulated by this exploration of the dynamics that can occur between his meaning of happiness and his meaning of meaning."

My clippings below collapse a 302-page book into six pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word." 

See all my book recommendations.  

Here are the selections I made:

Blaise Pascal was even blunter: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception.” And, to make clear how serious he is, he later adds: “This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

 

Choosing to experience pain to enhance subsequent pleasure is a powerful trick, but it only works some of the time.

 

In one experiment exploring this, researchers had people immerse their hands in freezing water for varying periods of time and then asked them which experience they wanted to repeat on a third trial—that is, which one caused them less pain. Here were the trials: Sixty seconds of moderate pain. Sixty seconds of moderate pain, then for thirty seconds the temperature is raised a bit—still painful, but less so. Which event does it make sense to choose to have again? A, obviously, because A has less pain. And yet subjects prefer B, presumably because it ends in a not-so-bad way.

 

Most relevant for the purposes here, one lucky accident of this feature of memory is that pain-then-pleasure is recalled as better than pleasure-then-pain. Because of this, even if the amount of pain, taken in isolation, is the same as the amount of pleasure, if the pain comes first, the distortions of memory decrease the pain and increase the pleasure, improving the whole experience.

 

In a similar study, people were asked to write about a past event that made them feel “most guilty,” and then were asked to manipulate a shock machine to either increase or decrease a set amount of shock they were receiving. Again the guilty group gave themselves more shock than a control group, and the stronger the shock they gave, the more their guilt went away.

 

I believe this in part because of Paul Rozin’s discoveries that people often refuse to drink soup from a brand-new bedpan, eat fudge shaped like feces, or put an empty gun to their head and pull the trigger. As Tamar Gendler points out, the mind works on two tracks. We know, consciously, that the bedpan is clean, the fudge is fudge, the gun is empty, and yet we can’t help blurring the imagined and reality; our minds scream, “Dangerous object! Stay away!”

 

Consider now a more disturbing sexual taste. In Stephens-Davidowitz’s study, fully one-quarter of female searches in straight porn emphasize suffering—physical and psychological—with search terms including words such as “brutal” and “painful.” (Five percent of searches were for “rape” or “forced sex,” even though these are banned on Pornhub.) Despite the fact that men are, in the actual world, far more violent and more likely to commit sexual assault, these searches were at least twice as common among women than among men.

 

There can be praise and exultation and even awe for the hero, as well as the vicarious pleasure of imagining oneself in the hero’s role. It’s interesting, though, that this seems to be a milder pleasure than comeuppance, perhaps because there isn’t the same evolutionary need for us to scrutinize and praise and take delight in goodness as there is for us to focus on the bad.

 

As usual in psychology, the negative is more powerful than the positive.

 

This is why good-versus-evil clashes are so much more satisfying than fictions where t...This highlight has been truncated due to consecutive passage length restrictions.

 

I know many people who defend this, who argue that humiliation is necessary to deter ugly racist behavior, so, perhaps reluctantly, we carry it out. But if you look at tweets and Facebook posts, or at the faces of those protesting Schlossberg on the streets of New York—many of whom are progressives, the sorts of people who explicitly disdain vengeful impulses—you’ll see glee. People enjoy watching Schlossberg get what he deserves.

 

I’m not here to nag, though; my point is just to remind you of how much pleasure we take in real-world comeuppance. I have a friend, an evolutionary psychologist, who likes to ask people if they’ve ever wished that someone they know personally would die. I’ve started to ask this of people myself, and I’ve gotten a lot of yeses, and even more if I ask about making someone suffer. Often, they want the person to suffer and to know why they are suffering, to have justice done and to see justice done.

 

My friend Graeme Wood, a journalist who has written extensively about ISIS, including a book based on interviews with both new recruits and long-standing members, tells me that many of those who joined the group were jaded when they signed up. They’ve had a lot of anonymous sex, they’ve taken every drug there is, they’ve lived lives of empty pleasure. But this wasn’t enough. They were looking for more, something of real value.

 

I know it’s unusual to talk about what Hitler got right, but here’s George Orwell explaining the appeal of National Socialism in a review of Mein Kampf: Hitler . . . knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, . . . they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice. . . . Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

 

But war’s appeal is more than belonging, morality, and signaling. As Chris Hedges put it in the title of one of his books, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” PERHAPS THE TWO examples so far have left you cold. Maybe you don’t want to climb mountains or go to war. But what about having children?

 

As Jennifer Senior notes, children provoke a couple’s most frequent arguments—“more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex.” Someone who doesn’t understand this is welcome to spend a full day with an angry two-year-old (or a sullen fifteen-year-old) and find out.

 

The first involves attachment. Most parents love their children, and it seems terrible to admit to yourself and others that the world would be better if someone you loved didn’t exist. More than that, it’s not just that you feel compelled to say that you are happy they exist—you are happy they exist. After all, you love them.

 

It’s not just me. When you ask people, “How often, if at all, do you think about the meaning and purpose of life?” or “In the bigger picture of your life, how personally significant and meaningful to you is what you are doing at the moment?,” parents—both mothers and fathers—say that their lives have more meaning than those of non-parents.

 

Just like mountain climbing and going to war, then, raising children is an activity that has an uncertain connection to pleasure but has the potential to enhance meaning and purpose.

 

Here is my own attempt to integrate the ideas so far, looking first at meaningful activities. A meaningful activity is oriented toward a goal, one that, if accomplished, would have an impact on the world—and this usually means that it has an impact on other people. This activity extends across a significant portion of one’s life and has some structure—it’s the sort of thing that one can tell a story about. It often connects to religion and spirituality and often connects to flow (leading to the experience of self-loss) and often brings you into close contact with other people and is often seen as morally virtuous—but none of these additional features are essential. 

 

This event fascinated two colleagues of mine, George Newman and Daylian Cain, and they decided to investigate “tainted altruism”—the discounting of altruistic acts that give us personal gain, even if they make the world better. In one of their studies, people read about a man who, to gain the affection of a woman, spent several hours a week volunteering where she worked. Some subjects were told that this was a homeless shelter; and it was emphasized that, though the man was self-interested, he did a good job at helping out. Others were told that it was a coffee shop. Subjects judged him to be a worse person when he worked at the homeless shelter.

 

Closer to the Pallotta case, they also found that subjects judged someone more harshly for running a charity for profit than for running a corporation for profit.

 

In experimental work, people tend to contribute more to a charity when they expect to endure pain and suffering for that cause—the so-called martyrdom effect.

 

It isn’t good if it doesn’t hurt, so when we do good, we are willing—in fact, eager—to experience pain.

 

If you ask one group of people whether they will participate in a charity that involves a five-mile run (grueling) and a second group whether they will participate if the event involves a picnic (pleasant), the people in the first group are more likely to agree.

 

This is the martyrdom effect. But when people are asked to consider both options at the same time, to choose between the five-mile run and the picnic, they tend to choose the picnic. Presumably they reason that since the picnic will do just as much good, there’s no point to the extra suffering of the five-mile run. As the authors point out, this suggests that we don’t simply have a “taste for painful benevolence”; rather, suffering is valuable, but only when it’s seen as essential for a positive result.

 

[There was] an old farmer who had worked on his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

 

But I also think that, as David Hume put it, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And this is truly an extraordinary claim.

 

Consider the findings of a recent meta-analysis called “Does Growth Require Suffering? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis on Genuine Posttraumatic and Postecstatic Growth.” There are three main conclusions from this review of the literature: There is some evidence from prospective studies—studies that collect data before and after the traumatic event—that there is some improvement, after a traumatic event, in self-esteem, positive relationships, and mastery. There is no growth in the categories of meaning and spirituality. But these effects are just as powerful after major positive life events as after major negative events. And they probably have nothing to do with the events themselves. Many studies don’t have control groups; they don’t compare what happens after the positive or negative experience with what happens if there is no event at all. When the authors of the review looked at the studies that had control groups, they found that most show no effect. That is, people tend to say that they got better in some regard after a major life experience, but they also say that they got better during the same time period if there was no experience at all. 

 

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” writes Richard Dawkins. After all, we’re the ones who got to exist in the first place.

 

There is no contradiction here. Money does make you happy; it’s the trying to make money that makes you sad. The trick is to get money in the course of other, meaningful, pursuits—or, if you can manage it, to be born into wealth.)

 

Genuinely happy individuals are”: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 

 

the world has been getting better: Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

 

decline in the rate of suicide: “Why Suicide Is Falling Around the World, and How to Bring It Down More,” The Economist, November 24, 2018, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/11/24/why-suicide-is-falling-around-the-world-and-how-to-bring-it-down-more.

 

Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

 

Matthew Hudson, “Why Do Women Have Erotic Rape Fantasies?” Psychology Today, May 29, 2008, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psyched/200805/why-do-women-have-erotic-rape-fantasies.

 

“Greater Effort Increases Perceived Value in an Invertebrate,” Journal of Comparative Psychology

 

children provoke a couple’s most frequent arguments: Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

 

survivorship bias: Jordan Ellenberg, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

 

We are happier when we are healthy”: Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

_020230616N.jpg
bottom of page