Paul Bloom is professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. His research explores the psychology of morality, identity and pleasure. His latest book is The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, from which this essay is adapted.
When was the last time you screamed? I was in Mumbai a while ago, packing up early in the morning and I tried to remove an adapter from the wall. It was a loaner from the hotel, an ugly thing with metal prongs in unpredictable places, and I must have touched it the wrong way, because I ended up flat on my back on the other side of the room, gasping and shaking.
We scream when we are in pain. But, weirdly, we also scream for the opposite of pain – intense pleasure, joyous surprise, great excitement. Have you seen the videos of fangirls in the sixties in the presence of the Beatles? They positively shriek. Crying is also triggered by opposites. You might cry on the worst day of your life and on the best. Weddings and funerals; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Once you look for paradoxical reactions, you see them everywhere. We laugh at what’s funny, but we also laugh when anxious or embarrassed. We grin when happy, but sometimes we grin when angry. Smiling is associated with joy, but when researchers asked people to watch a sad movie scene – the part of Steel Magnolias where a woman is speaking at the funeral of her adult daughter – about half of the subjects smiled.
Or think about the reaction that people sometimes have toward babies. The Filipino language has a word for this – gigil – which refers to the agitated feeling many of us get toward the adorable and vulnerable. We want to pinch and squeeze. We often nibble on babies and say we are going to eat them. Just imagine, your friend shows you his one-year-old baby, and you lean over, grab the baby’s toes, gnaw on them, and growl “I want to gobble you up!” – and nobody thinks you’re crazy, not even the baby.
One theory is that these strange reactions arise when your feelings – toward the Beatles, an artwork, a baby – become overwhelming. You need to calm the system down, and so, to compensate, you generate expressions and actions that counteract them, that go in the opposite direction. Think of it like cold water on a fire that might get out of control.
This sort of compensation – pursuing the negative to balance out the positive, and vice versa – also works on a broader level. It is part of how we choose to organize our day-to-day lives. Usually, a day has pleasant activities and unpleasant ones, and to some extent we have control over when to experience the good and the bad – when to go out with friends and when to clean the kitty litter. To explore how we prefer to organize the good and the bad, one study used a smartphone app to make real-time measurements of the moods and activities of 28,000 people over about a month. It turned out that people’s choices showed what the authors called “a hedonic flexibility principle.” When they were unhappy, they tended to do things that made them happy, like playing sports, and when they felt happy they would do necessary things that brought them no joy, like housework. The positive and the negative sat in balance.
Sometimes we seek out negative experiences just for the curious pleasure that they give. The psychologist Paul Rozin has coined the term “benign masochism,” to refer to certain types of voluntary pain and suffering.
Now, there are many things that benign masochism is not. It doesn’t include the choice of difficult life pursuits, such as deciding to have a child. It doesn’t include activities that can damage one’s body or cause severe pain – it’s benign, after all. Getting yourself crucified, as some of the faithful do in the Philippines during Easter, is not benign masochism. The pleasure and pain of saunas is usually a good example of benign masochism, but you can go too far. In the 2010 World Sauna Competition, two finalists passed out after six minutes in 230 F (110 C) heat, suffering from burns and trauma. One of the men later died; the other was put into a medically induced coma and kept there for six weeks before he woke up with severe injuries. That’s not benign masochism, either.
Rather, benign masochism refers to the choice to pursue activities that are normally painful or unpleasant, but not harmful. We sniff with curiosity at food we know to be rotten, touch a sore tooth gingerly with our tongue, press down on a sprained ankle. We watch movies that make us cower and cry. We eat spicy food and immerse ourselves in hot baths. Many psychologists do experiments that involve the infliction of harmless and painful electric shocks, and the odd thing is that you don’t have to pay subjects gobs of money to participate; people, particularly young people, and especially young male people, like to get shocked. Not as intense as my Mumbai incident, but real pain, seemingly for its own sake.
How do we explain this? One answer brings us back to cases like screaming at the Beatles and sobbing at the birth of a baby, it’s clear that the positive and the negative are intertwined. This is an old observation. Plato describes Socrates rubbing his aching leg and saying, “How strange would appear to be this thing that men call pleasure! And how curiously it is related to what is thought to be its opposite, pain! … If you seek the one and obtain it, you are almost bound always to get the other as well.”
In modern times, many psychologists endorse an “opponent-process” theory of experience, whereby our minds seek balance, or homeostasis, so that positive reactions are met with negative feelings, and vice versa. The fear of skydiving is followed by feelings of relief and accomplishment, for instance.
As neuroscientist Indira M. Raman put it, “because the brain grades on a curve, endlessly comparing the present with what came just before, the secret to happiness may be unhappiness … the transient chill that lets us feel warmth, the sensation of hunger that makes satiety so welcome, the period of near despair that catapults us into the astonishing experience of triumph.”
Part of the story of benign masochism, then, is that we sometimes play with pain to maximize the contrast with future experience, to generate future pleasure. We engineer experiences in which the rush associated with the period immediately after pain’s release is powerful enough to outweigh the negative of the original pain. And so the bite of a hot bath is worth it because of the blissful contentment that comes when the temperature is just right; the mouth burn of hot curry is pleasurable because of the shock of relief when you guzzle down some cool beer. It’s like the old joke about the guy who was banging his head against the wall; when asked why, he said, “It feels so good when I stop.”
I remember shovelling snow as a child in Quebec, and what I remember isn’t the effort or strain (I was a child, after all), but the cold burning the parts of my face that weren’t covered and the barbs of snow and ice getting into my boots and melting. But when I was done, my mom gave me some hot cocoa and then I climbed into a warm bath, and it was perfect bliss.
A friend once told me about a hike she did in the British countryside – hours and hours spent with a companion after they got lost, and how they hadn’t brought enough food and water, and it was getting dark, and they were starting to worry … and then they found a logging road and stumbled into a town and walked into a pub, and they sat outside in the dark with pints of beer and plates of fish and chips, chain-smoking and laughing. My friend’s eyes lit up with such joy as she told the story – the experience so much benefiting from the suffering that preceded it.
This contrast theory gives us some sense of the pleasure we get from certain movies. They begin with the hero at peace (after the death of his wife, John Wick bonds with a beagle puppy named Daisy to help him cope with grief), then there is some evil act that shatters everything (after a chance run-in with Russian mobsters, they break into his house, knock him unconscious and kill his dog), and then we work toward the gratifying payback (the legendary hitman comes back from retirement and, as the IMDb plot summary puts it, “blind with revenge, John will immediately unleash a carefully orchestrated maelstrom of destruction”). The murder of Daisy is upsetting to watch, but since you know what sort of movie this is, the sadness is balanced by the thrill that soon you’re going to see those Russian mobsters get what they deserve.
Contrast is one draw of benign masochism. Another is its power to focus the mind. Whatever the negatives of physical pain – or of emotions such as horror and disgust – they sure are attention grabbers.
This has its appeal: Pain can relieve anxiety by distracting you from your consciousness. It gets you out of your head. This is one regard in which sharp and sudden pain resembles what might seem to be its opposite – orgasm.
Why would you ever want to escape from yourself? Well, self-awareness carries a burden. In everyday life, you need to make decisions that you’re responsible for, often disappointing others. You need to put a good face forward to the world; you have to manage your desires and deal with disappointment and guilt and shame. You’re stuck with your memories, your worries about the future, and your anxieties about the immediate present. You are left with that same internal monologue, maybe a bit whiny, that you have had for a very long time.
It’s not hard to see how we become sick of ourselves, not just sick of the bodies we occupy (though this might happen, too), but sick of our consciousness. When it comes to this sort of misery, there is a great truth to the classic breakup line “It’s not you; it’s me.”
And so one of the joys of immersing yourself in certain activities, such as hard exercise or a difficult puzzle or being whipped, is that you lose the feeling of being conscious of yourself. You just are. It’s often said that getting to this state is one of the goals of meditative practice, but for some of us novices meditation has the opposite effect. Being trapped in one’s own head with no distractions can be a miserable experience – one’s me-ness can be annoyingly salient. In contrast, the first time I “rolled” (sparred) with someone in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I realized afterward that during that period, I thought of nothing else, my self was gone, and there was a sort of bliss to that.
And this brings us back to pain. Pain can be better than meditation, because while meditation requires the constant choice to engage with the monkey mind, to gently push away those distracting thoughts, pain does the trick for you. I wouldn’t deny for a moment the terribleness of so much of pain, and I’m all in favour of interventions to make it go away – I’ll have my dental surgery with anesthesia, thank you very much – but its distracting force cannot be denied, and for some people, under some circumstances, this positive can outweigh the negatives.
There are other theories of the draw of benign masochism. One competing theory is signalling; we often experience pain publicly, to show how tough we are, or how pious, or as a cry for help.
And there is the wish to escape from boredom. Pleasure can be stultifying. Alan Watts, the late British philosopher and popular interpreter of Zen Buddhism, had a parable about this.
He began by asking you to imagine that you were able to dream about whatever you wanted, 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 said, you’d fulfill all your wishes, choose every sort of pleasure. It would be a hedonistic blowout.
And then suppose you could do it again the next night, and then the next, and then the next. Soon, Mr. Watts said, you would say to yourself:
But now let’s have a surprise, let’s have a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it’s gonna be.
And then you would continue to gamble, adding increasing risk, uncertainty, ignorance, deprivation. You would put obstacles in your way, obstacles that you might not be able to overcome, until finally, as Mr. Watts said, you would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.
Is your life right now – with its difficulty and struggle, worry and loss – the best that life can be? Perhaps not. But Watts’s fantasy is close enough to capture a deep truth about our nature; we are in love with trouble.
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