The uncomfortable truth about your happiness
“No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.” - Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus
It's a neuroscientific truth confirming 2,500 year-old Epicurean wisdom that the relentless pursuit of pleasure doesn't lead to happiness, but to suffering. According to Dr. Anna Lembke, an expert in the workings of the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine, with 70 percent of global deaths attributable to smoking, diet, and lack of exercise, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re titillating ourselves to death. My goal with this edition of The 5-Minute Recharge is to convince you that you can make your life better through the gentle pursuit of pain—by intentionally introducing physical and mental discomfort into your life. When you actively seek out pain, you tap into your body’s innate healing mechanism, the delayed reward for your discomfort. And when you imagine your pain serving a higher purpose, as is seen in people who have experienced post-traumatic growth, it becomes an even more potent source of happiness.
Let's dive into the chilly water. 1. A Greek word that explains why pain is good for you
Hormesis (hor-mee-sis) is a Greek word that means “to set in motion.” According to the theory of hormesis, small doses of toxins act on the body in different ways than large doses, and may even be beneficial. This is not an invitation to take a bite out of your yoga mat. Hormesis is an invitation to expose yourself to something mildly noxious to become stronger and heal. Extreme temperatures, hunger and exercise are examples of noxious triggers for hormesis.
“It sets in motion our own healing mechanism and tells our body, ‘Oh boy, there’s an injury here and we need to upregulate dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, all those feel-good hormones’. Hormesis is a way to press on the pain side of the balance to get the “gremlins” to hop on the pleasure side and reset your hedonic set point to the side of joy.”
- Dr. Anna Lembke summarizes the scientific argument for the pleasurable pursuit of pain
To find out more about hormesis, hedonic set points, and gremlins, please check out this YouTube interview with Dr. Anna Lembke from the Modern Wisdom podcast. This podcast is so enjoyably informative that I've listened to it five times. (I think that I may be addicted to the work of Dr. Anna Lembke.)
2. Hormesis in action: A world-class case study from yips to yays Tyler Matzek is now a World Series-winning pitcher, but to get to the pinnacle of the game of baseball, he had to experience pain. Those of you who play golf may be familiar with the “yips” — a sudden inability to do what used to come naturally. Tyler Matzek was a top prospect in the Colorado Rockies organization whose yips got him demoted to the minor leagues in 2015 and released outright in 2017. Most yippy players never recover their previous form, and nobody in baseball wants to be around a person with the yips, believing on some superstitious level that it’s contagious.
Hormesis played a role in Matzek’s remarkable recovery. His performance coach Jason Kuhn, a former pitcher and Navy Seal who knows a lot about persisting through pain, has this mantra...
“The greater the struggle, the greater the reward.” - Jason Kuhn
Kuhn had Matzek push medicine balls uphill, pitch to the sound of a bullhorn to challenge his focus, and do “a whole bunch of crazy stuff” designed to make him feel uncomfortable. It worked. By 2020, five years after he last pitched on a big-league roster, Tyler Matzek was back in the majors striking out batters in high-pressure situations and helping his team make it to the World Series.
On the painful road back to success, Matzek found a higher purpose for his discomfort:
“The fuel that drives me is the love I’ve got for my teammates.” - Tyler Matzek
3. What the pain of trauma teaches us about growth
When pain is so severe that it challenges your core belief about how life is supposed to go, it’s called trauma. Trauma is never intentionally chosen as a life experience, yet in many cases it's the catalyst for growth. Based on hundreds of studies, Dr. Richard Tedeschi, researcher, clinical psychologist, and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, has found through hundreds of studies that post-traumatic growth falls into one of these five categories:
1. Changed relationships with others
2. New possibilities for life, including new careers and creative outlets
3. A better appreciation of living
4. A greater sense of personal strength
5. A spiritual or existential change
I won’t encourage you to seek out trauma as an opportunity for personal growth, but the experience of meaning-making that often results from these “earthquakes of the psyche” can apply to all of us:
“Ultimately, the meaning that they derive from this experience comes when they plan out a life of service going forward so that they have a purpose where they benefit other people. This helps consolidate the post-traumatic growth process.” - Dr. Richard Tedeschi
Find out more about how people who have experienced trauma have recreated their life stories in “The Science of Post-Traumatic Growth” from The Psychology Podcast
Now it’s your turn. What is one small thing you can do to make your life a little bit uncomfortable so that you can ultimately make it more satisfying? I’m taking cold showers of slowly increasing duration (I’m up to 1 minute!) and have found it to be hugely invigorating, energizing, and strangely fun. The first hit of icy cold used to make me gasp, and now it just makes me laugh. Putting your phone aside for a few hours to experience boredom, not purchasing anything other than necessities for a week, or fasting for 12 hours or more are a few other examples of ways that you can experiment with discomfort.
Take it from a woman who has learned some painful lessons from pleasure seekers:
“We have to intentionally and willfully invite pain into our lives on a daily basis.” - Dr. Anna Lembke
Your 5-Minute Recharge Quote of the Week
“I learned how to suffer through all kinds of discomfort because what you get from it makes it worthwhile. It’s the same for anyone who wants to follow a path of bliss. There is a lot of suffering.”
- Deirdre Wolownick, who climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan to celebrate her 70th birthday
Wishing you discomfort that turns into bliss,