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The Shortcut to Finding Pleasure From Pain

Lessons for dealing with stress and loss, and becoming resilient

My wife and kids have a betting pool on when they will see me cry. They want to know whether I’m fully human or a psychopath cruising the suburbs in a soccer mini-van.

When did I come closest to tears in the past 20 years? It wasn’t my grandmother’s death. Nor when my car hit black ice and flipped off a desolate New York highway into a ditch at 2 a.m. And it wasn’t the moment my first born, nuzzled in my arm, fell into a sleep of deep contentment. Nope. It was watching A Beautiful Mind in the theater. The scene where Princeton professors walk up to John Nash (Russell Crowe) and wordlessly, place a ballpoint pen on his lunch table (ever so slowly with that melancholic, Hollywood score). Sure, this entire episode was fabricated, as there is no such ritual of respect at Princeton, but if you want facts, go read Mormon or Scientology scriptures.

How did my wife respond as my eyes welled up? She looked at me and said, “are you kidding me? This! This is when you decide to cry. A $@*% movie about academic science? You have issues.”

Human beings have issues. We are the only living creatures that silently shed tears in response to emotional situations. We are the only species that emotionally tear from the experience of sadness as well as joy and gratitude.

This is just one marker of the benign masochism of humans - when pain is not only tolerated but favored. How common is it to experience pleasure from pain? Dr. Paul Rozin and his colleagues asked this exact question to a large number of adults and discovered that...

54.5% enjoyed spicy food; 23.4% relished the moment when watery eyes turned into tears

41.9% enjoyed sad music; 33% enjoyed crying from the sadness

36.5% enjoyed the physical pain of a massage

23.2% enjoyed gory movies

19% enjoyed pinching pimples

17.4% enjoyed stinky cheese

People are strange. Emotions are strange. Some of the most satisfying and meaningful moments in our lives are blended emotional experiences as...

59% of people said "my favorite roller coaster is the scariest I can put up with"

37% of people said "the saddest music I like best is about as sad as I can stand"

24% of people said "my favorite massage is the most painful one I can stand"

In case you don't identify with these examples of benign masochism, consider the pleasure from strain during action sports (such as deep sea diving, skiing, and rock climbing) and interpersonal competition (such as chess and poker). As long as we view positive emotions as the antidote to negative emotions, the human phenomena of emotional reversals will remain outside the scope of study and understanding.

Do people with a greater taste for pain experience a greater quality of life?

Does experiencing pleasure from sad, fearful, disgusting, and angry experiences reduce one's ability to empathize with others?

What cultural practices alter the presence of benign masochism?

Will the intentional cultivation of benign masochism improve someone's ability to better tolerate life's slings and arrows?

We are at our best when we can transcend the dichotomy of positive and negative—when emotions serve as signals instead of obstacles. By giving myself an opportunity to cry with each peek of A Beautiful Mind, by experiencing righteous indignation with each reading of Missoula, by introducing nostalgia with each rendering of 1979, I become more comfortable being uncomfortable. I become stronger.

How are you training yourself to be comfortable being uncomfortable?

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: