Why There's Pain in Happiness

Strangely, happiness requires pain—but not suffering.

Posted Jun 20, 2013

Nobody likes pain, and we all try to avoid it when we can.

But paradoxically, a person who wants to find happiness must learn to embrace pain. How can this be? The answer lies in the definition of happiness. In my favorite short definition, psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar describes happiness as “the overall experience of both pleasure and meaning.” Pleasure, of course, is the opposite of pain, so, at first glance, the idea that happiness involves pain does not make sense.

When you consider the “meaning” part of happiness, however, you realize that the search for your positive purpose in life does involve pain. There’s confusion in not knowing what you’d like to devote yourself to. There’s struggle to define your goals in life. There are failures, setbacks, and switchbacks as you proceed toward your goals and values. There’s hard work. All these things can be painful.

The pain of deciding on and achieving your goals in life, however, is different from suffering. As the old saying goes, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” “Suffering” takes place when we ruminate about our pain, thinking, for example, “Oh, he’s doing better than I am, so what I’ve done is worthless,” or “I was rejected by her, and soon I will be rejected by all my friends and family” or any of the myriad thoughts and mental dramas that drag down our moods or distract us from constructive actions. Pain takes place in reality, suffering in the mind.

Suffering also takes place when we try to avoid pain, even though the attempt to avoid pain often causes more of it than the original problem. PT blogger Alex Lickerman offers some excellent examples of this in his blog—to wit, the person who tries to medicate feelings of anxiety and depression with excessive drinking, with disastrous results for health, relationships, and work.  As psychiatrist R.D. Laing said, “There’s a lot of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” And since avoiding pain means avoiding the things that give you meaning in life, it will decrease your happiness in the long run, too. No pain, no happiness gain.

One of the easiest ways to increase your tolerance for pain and discomfort is to remember your higher purpose and the meaning it will give your life. That meaning, in turn, will increase your happiness.  Thus the best way to deal with the inevitable pain of life is to take on a worthwhile project...and another...and another. Including some healthy pleasures in your daily life will also add to your happiness and help you "whistle while you work."

So, there's pain in happiness, and I don't just mean the letters, p-a-i-n. The next time you see a happy person, remember...That person has felt, or is feeling, some pain. He or she has simply practiced tolerating it in search of a greater happiness.

(c) Meg Selig

For practical tips on making a friend of pain, a term he uses somewhat differently than I do, see Alex Lickerman’s excellent blog here.

Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For updates on health, happiness, and habit change, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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