There are several paradoxes in psychology, the more you try to go asleep, the less likely it is that you will succeed, the more you try not to think of terrible things, the more likely those thoughts will enter your mind, and according to new research, putting out effort and pain may give us some of our greatest pleasures and meaning in life.
The idea that striving can give us a sense of meaning and happiness is central to some schools of thought in psychology, such as self-determination theory.
This theory posits that much of our behavior is governed by a drive to fulfill three innate needs: to feel competent, connected to other people, and autonomous (to be self-determining).
Consider the following activities: Make a list of everything you dislike in your mind.
Mentally double-check those that are significant or important to you in some way.
- When your plate is already full, say no to individuals, projects, and activities.
- Resolving a family quarrel.
- Listen honestly to someone with a different political perspective than yours.
- Get up early to exercise even if you are tired and it’s dark outside.
- Staying at an event where you feel socially anxious.
- Refusing a drink, food, or money that you really want.
- Saying something that will be hard for others to hear.
- Asking someone for help.
- Going to the dentist despite being nervous because you know it will be good for your overall health.
As the above examples illustrate, many of us do not like putting ourselves out there or experiencing pain, but research shows that people who engage in these kinds of striving tend to be happier.
When you are pushing yourself to do something difficult, what are you getting out of it? Perhaps the answer is that struggling through these kinds of experiences is one of the most meaningful ways to spend your time on this planet.
A meaningful life is not one filled with pleasure
The more you engage in purposeful activities, the more likely you are to feel uncomfortable. If you’re a parent, this is something you already know.
Discomfort is linked to such intentional activities as parenting, volunteer work, having a pet, and social justice not only because they produce contrast but also because pain can be pleasurable in and of itself.
The reason for this is that pain can be a tool for self-regulation. In the face of any discomfort, we value comfort and pleasure above all other things.
However, if we give in to our desires every time they arise, then we will never develop the ability to delay gratification or exert control over our bodies’ impulses.
It is not only our emotions that have a bearing on how we feel. Pain may also have an impact on our dopamine balance.
In her book Dopamine Nation, Anne Lembke, a doctor at Stanford University’s Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, suggests that when we overstimulate the pleasure centers of the brain with dopamine, we get more pleasure from pain.
In a study of people who had been prescribed OxyContin for pain, she found that over time they experienced a reduction in the amount of pleasure they got from everyday experiences and activities such as listening to music or going out with friends.
In contrast, when they experienced negative events, such as being insulted by someone close to them, they found these events much more pleasurable.
Another important factor is that individuals who are highly sensitive to physical pain are not merely sensitive to other kinds of pain, such as social rejection, but also derive greater pleasure from everyday activities.
How to skillfully choose pain and meaning
As a therapist, I frequently ask my patients to choose pain in the service of significance. Exposure therapy is one of my specialties, and part of exposing oneself involves accepting discomfort in the interest of growing flexible.
You flexibly face what makes you uncomfortable so that you may live a more full life.
Here are six methods for extending your flexibility in the service of a meaningful life.
- Concentrate on the virtue of free will.I get up early most mornings to run, lift heavy weights, or practice sitting in meditation—all in the service of my health and well-being.
If someone compelled me to do any of these tasks, it would be considered torture. A choice is a psychological tool with a lot of power.
Choosing to embrace discomfort rather than opposing it changes your perception of it.
You may even adopt the attitude of choice for activities that feel like “forced” on you by changing your perspective to “yes brain,” according to Dan Siegel.
- Turn up the significance dial.When we are in pain, we frequently become so absorbed in avoiding it, distracting ourselves from it, or being overwhelmed by it that we lose touch with what’s essential at the time.
Imagine you have two dials—a pain dial and a meaning dial.
Every time you turn the meaning dial, the pain dial automatically turns.
They are linked! Should you lower the significance dial? Of course not.
Instead, we may practice making space for discomfort by focusing our attention on the advantages of the significance knob.
When you concentrate on meaning, you can still feel and be aware of the pain in a compassionate manner.
- Keep a firm grip on the present.In an interview with happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky for her colleague Yael Schonbrun’s article about psychologists off the clock, Lyubomirsky discussed research on distressing events.
Breaking up unpleasant events into smaller pieces (for example, taking a rest during dental drilling) makes them feel less painful.
The scary notion of what is coming after can be powerful.
When deciding to enter an unpleasant circumstance, remain in the moment with the discomfort: just now, just this minute.
Present-moment concentration aids in the release of your mind’s dread and despair regarding future hurt. You don’t have to put up with future anguish, you only need to put up with this moment.
- Make your pain felt.Most people get anxious before going to bed, and my thoughts can become caught in worry and rumination.
Physicalization is a great technique for getting you out of your head and into the feelings of your body.
Try looking at a bodily or emotional discomfort in your body when it appears.
What would you say was the shape, color, movement, or weight of the discomfort?
You give your mind something to do other than ruminating and worrying by turning toward and studying your pain, you develop an observer self that can recognize that though you are experiencing pain, YOU ARE NOT YOUR PAIN.
- Expand your horizons.When your threat system is activated, you’re more likely to focus on threats and unpleasant experiences.
Instead of becoming trapped in a tunnel vision, consider stepping back and looking at the big picture.
When was the last time you accomplished something difficult that had a purpose? How did your discomfort change over time? You may also take a broader view of what you’re facing.
What resources do you have to cope with your discomfort? Can you use a comforting thought, a retrieval cue from memory, or an image of yourself in the future?
- Climb above yourself.You may realize the benefits of transcending your small self when you put yourself in pain for the sake of something larger.
We can be self-focused strivers, especially in our present environment, which is filled with consumerism and long lists of to-dos.
Transcend your little ego by entering a service-oriented, helpful role. You can also try mindfulness meditation or a gratitude/generosity exercise to cultivate a bigger vision for yourself and your small suffering self.
To summarize, pain and suffering are an inevitable part of a fulfilled existence. You may discover a greater sense of freedom by practicing opening yourself to your entire experience.
When you do that, a greater sense of ease and confidence will follow.