What's your "hurts so good"?
My hurts-so-good favorites are:
1. Spicy food
2. Sad songs
3. Strenuous (but not too strenuous!) exercise
From horror movies to hot baths, we all have some form of “suffering” that gives us pleasure. This week’s 5-Minute Recharge searches for the “sweet spot” where meaningful discomfort will lead you to a satisfying life.
Oh, why can’t you tell me that a life of pleasure is a satisfying life?!!
In today's pleasure-laden world, we could spend all our time chasing micro-euphorias on screens, in mind-altering substances, and in games of chance, but this is not the recipe for a good life. Please read Dr. Anna Lembke’s marvelous book Dopamine Nation that describes how pleasure and pain operate on the same circuit in your brain and how pursuing a life of pleasure will ultimately reset your brain to a lacking-in-joy state. Or you can get a different formulation of the same message by watching The Twilight Zone episode entitled, “A Nice Place to Visit.”
Oooh, I LOVE The Twilight Zone! Tell me more.
You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. Meet Mr. Henry Francis “Rocky” Valentine, a scared, angry little man who never got a break. Rocky is shot in a gunfight after robbing a pawn shop and wakes up in a heavenly place where he's greeted by Pip, a guardian angel dressed in white who caters to his every need. In this place, Rocky can never lose. He hits the jackpot every time he plays a casino game, has a beautiful home and all the money, food, and women he could ever want. At first it’s exhilarating. Then it becomes boring. Finally, this heavenly place becomes excruciating, and Rocky asks his guardian Pip to take him to “the other place.”
“Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!” exclaims Pip, who punctuates his hellish words with a maniacal laugh.
A scared angry little man who never got a break. Now he has everything he ever wanted — and he’s going to have to live with it for eternity — in The Twilight Zone.
Wow. I never took a hedonistic thought experiment that far. A life without at least some degree of struggle is indeed Hell, but how much struggle do we need?
You’ve discovered the key question that you can only answer for yourself. It’s a question that University of Toronto professor of psychology Paul Bloom explores in his new book, The Sweet Spot that makes a perfect companion piece to Anna Lembke's Dopamine Nation. In The Sweet Spot, Bloom explores how people find pleasure in pain, such as my attraction to painful food, and how at least some misery is essential to a meaningful life.
What makes an activity meaningful?
Bloom describes a meaningful activity as something that:
is oriented toward a challenging goal that, if achieved, would have an impact on the world
takes up a significant portion of your life
you can explain as a story
you can lose yourself in
Can you give me an example of a meaningful activity?
Sure. Take Rob Pope. He’s an ultramarathoner who made Forrest Gump’s fictional five-time, 15,621-mile run across America into reality. Pope ran through the same places as Gump, and even copied his hairstyle. His quest has all the key elements of a meaningful activity: a worthy goal, a story, and oodles of challenge. Pope braved injuries, ran through fires and blizzards, and evaded deadly wildlife to raise money for charity and fulfill his mother’s wish that he do one thing in life that made a difference.
How about an example from the other end of the meaningfulness spectrum?
A recent article in The Washington Post examines the life of Tyler Steinkamp, a “streamer” who makes millions of dollars in exchange for being imprisoned in a Twilight Zone of exhibitionism where thousands of people watch and critique his every move for 10 hours a day. Pursuing extrinsic goals tied to praise and reward — things such as money, status, and physical attractiveness — is a recipe for a life of anxiety and depression. Tyler’s girlfriend Macaiyla sums up the misery of this type of life:
“I don’t care if I lose all my followers tomorrow. It doesn’t mean anything. I miss people. The human interaction.”
Whoa. I don’t want a life of live streaming, but I don’t want to run 15,621 miles either. What should I do? How do I find the right amount of pleasure and struggle for a happy life?
Happiness is what happens when you’re busy doing other things. Find a challenging goal that you believe is worth pursuing, and happiness—or at least a life that on the whole you're happy with—will ensue.
Hey, before you go, tell me: what’s up with the spicy food? Why do we find pleasure in pain?
That’s a tough one. Nobody really knows, but it could be that pain enhances the pleasure that follows when, for example, you drink something cold after setting your mouth ablaze with hot pepper sauce. Or maybe you’re curious about how much heat you can take. Or maybe you like the way that pain focuses your attention and takes you out of yourself. As a dominatrix once said…
“A whip is a great way to get someone to be here now. They can’t look away from it, and they can’t think of anything else…”
On that spicy note…
The recharge quote of the week is the same quote that ends The Sweet Spot:
“I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
You can find out more about pain, pleasure and meaning in this YouTube interview with Paul Bloom.
“Find Balance in a Dopamine-Overloaded World” with Dr. Anna Lembke on the Feel Better Live More podcast.
Read more about the miserable life of Tyler the Streamer in The Washington Post.
Listen to how Rob Pope brought Forrest Gump to real life in this podcast episode from Modern Wisdom.
Discover where jolly men and women go to find the true meaning of the holiday season at the “Harvard of Santa Schools.”
Wishing you a meaningful (and pleasantly painful) week ahead,