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Why Do We Suffer More Than We Need To?

Recognizing when and why we are suffering unnecessarily can help us reduce it.

Key points

  • While a great deal of suffering in life is inevitable, a large portion is exaggerated and unnecessary.
  • Our brains evolved to help us solve problems to enhance survival, but they also create suffering by dwelling on the negative.
  • When we can determine whether our suffering is unnecessary or exaggerated, we can take steps to reduce it.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock
Source: Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock

"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." —Unknown

In my previous post, I discussed how much of our suffering is part of the human condition and, in fact, necessary for our survival. We evolved to suffer in certain circumstances (e.g., deprivation of food, water, air, warmth, social rejection, loss of loved ones). Our suffering motivates us to change our behavior, when possible, in ways that enhance our chances of survival. I am calling this Level 1 Suffering. This is the "Pain is inevitable" part of the above quote.

If you are reading this, then you, like me, are benefiting from the many creature comforts of modernity. Unlike most of our ancestors throughout our evolutionary history, we don't have to worry about securing the basic life necessities of food, water, and shelter. Moreover, we benefit from technological advances, antibiotics, and modern medicine. We should all probably be much more grateful for the amazing benefits of modernity that we tend to take for granted.

Herein lies part of the problem. Despite our tremendous progress and most of our creature comforts being met, we still suffer quite a bit. In fact, we suffer a lot more than we need to suffer. Why is this the case?

The double-edged sword of our big brains

Our magnificent brains evolved to solve complex problems to enhance our survival. It is with these big brains that we've developed enlightened reasoning, the scientific method, modern medicine, communities, governments, agriculture, plumbing, electricity, and TikTok. As Harvard University social psychologist Dan Gilbert describes in his book Stumbling Upon Happiness, our brains are experience simulators. When trying to work through our challenges and achieve our goals, we can hold information in our heads and "try out" various solutions. This can save time, energy, and resources and reduce our exposure to threats. Consider the following examples:

  • Hunters see the tracks of an animal and form hypotheses about what kind of animal it is, when it went by, how fast it might be traveling, and where it might be.
  • You need to figure out your retirement plans. How much can you afford to invest for retirement? Into what types of investment options do you invest your money? When do you want to retire? How long do you expect to live? How much money will you need per year to live on?
  • Your friend seems perturbed at you. Did you say or do anything that could have offended her? Is she being overly dramatic over a minor transgression, or is she upset by something else entirely? If she's upset with you, what can you do to smooth things over?

We literally owe our existence to the incredible power of our brains. So, let's take a moment to use our brains to appreciate how amazing our brains are. That said, our big brains can get us into big trouble too. They are the source of what I am calling Level 2 Suffering, which is the "Suffering is optional" part of the previous quote.

How our big brains can cause major suffering

As part of an inherent negativity bias, our brains help us survive by being alert to potential threats. Unconsciously, our brains' default mode network, in an effort to protect us from harm, ironically causes us harm in the form of disturbing ruminations about the past and worrisome thoughts about the future. This habit is a feature of our brains, not a bug. Our brains were meant to do this. However, constantly reviewing the negative events of the past or worrying about what could happen to us in the future can elicit feelings of depression or anxiety, respectively. Perhaps, instead of a negative externality, we can consider this a "negative internality."

It is as if we have our own personal news anchors in our brains, incessantly spouting a stream of bad news about the past and anxiety-provoking headlines about the future. The modern world contains many dangers that are highly discrepant from those encountered by our ancestors throughout our evolutionary history. This evolutionary mismatch creates endless sources of existential threats. Will America become a fascist or socialist country? What if North Korea develops a nuclear arsenal? Is Fortnite ruining my kid? What if my son doesn't get into a good college? Why don't more people "like" my posts on social media? What if I lose my job? The news and social media capitalize upon our fears because we are drawn to negative news like moths to a flame.

The reality is that once we examine past events to help us learn from those experiences, ruminating about them does us little good since we can't change the past. Moreover, few of the worries we fret over actually come true. Many wise people have noted the "madness" of constantly worrying about things that aren't likely to happen.

"Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation." —Honoré de Balzac

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.” —Of unknown origin but often attributed to Mark Twain

“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!” —Seneca

Reflect on your own experiences to see the "madness" of your brain

Take just a moment and think back to some bad things that you worried about happening that never happened. Here are a few examples from... um, a good friend of mine:

  • My wife, I mean my friend's wife, was out late with her friend and didn't respond to texts in a timely fashion. Did she get in a car wreck on the way home?
  • My friend gave a presentation and didn't receive feedback right away. Did the attendees not like it? Did one of his jokes offend people? Will he get "blacklisted"?
  • My friend's young son did not get off the school bus. Did his son miss the bus? Is he stuck at school? Did he get picked up by a stranger? Abducted? (Or, just perhaps, his grandmother picked his son up from school, and my friend had just forgotten that he had made that arrangement.)

Can you identify with some experiences like these? Of course, bad things do happen. Sometimes that little mole is cancerous. However, if we could compare the number of times that we worried about bad things happening to us that didn't end up happening with the number of bad things that we worried about that did happen to us, there would be an enormous disparity. We can consider this exaggerated and unnecessary suffering Level 2 Suffering.

The takeaway

By understanding the nature of suffering with greater clarity, we can implement some skillful strategies to reduce it. As the Buddha astutely observed, "Life is suffering." While that sounds overly negative, the Buddha, in his wisdom, must have been aware of how easily our minds can become preoccupied with suffering.

Level 1 Suffering, which is an inevitable part of life, comes from adversities such as lack of food, water, and shelter, as well as injuries, disease, and death. In our modern world, though, much of our daily suffering can be considered Level 2 Suffering, emerging from our mind's tendency to ruminate on the negatives of the past and present and worry about potential threats in the present and future.

The podcast version of this post can be found here.

References

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