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Book Summary: The Sweet Spot – The Pleasure of Suffering and the Search for Meaning

The Sweet Spot (2021) is a refreshing antidote to all the books we read about being positive at all costs. It argues that negative experiences like pain, suffering, and discomfort are not something to be shied away from. In fact, they can add value to our lives. Instead of trying to avoid discomfort, we need to find the right discomfort. That is, the kind of challenge that makes our lives meaningful.

Who is it for?

  • Self-help fans who are tired of all the toxic positivity
  • Psychology lovers looking for an original perspective on how pain and suffering affect our lives
  • Reflective seekers looking to understand what will give their lives a sense of purpose

Find the sweet spot between pain and pay-off.

So, you like salt and vinegar crisps. You like the pinch at the back corner of your mouth, and though it doesn’t overwhelm, you love the sensory kick it gives you. Or maybe you’re into habanero sauce; you’re into the perfumey fragrance of the chili that snakes its way through your sinuses – that fiery, blinding pain that stops everything, all thought and time. How about pushing yourself at the gym – doing that one last squat as your thighs quiver at the exertion?

Book Summary: The Sweet Spot - The Pleasure of Suffering and the Search for Meaning

Sounds like punishment, but there’s always a pay-off. There’s always gratification at the end of these ordeals.

So what is it about that feeling – that mix of pleasure and pain? Why do so many of us microdose on uncomfortable experiences like this? Is this our way of flirting with our mortality? We all know that at some point we’ll meet death and so maybe this is a way of forcing ourselves to remember that life is meant to be felt.

OK, yes, with some perspective, the kind of pain that I’ve just described can be read as “trivial” – a fleeting, instant bit of suffering, for a moment of pleasure. So what about the more serious or more meaningful choices that we make voluntarily that also result in the potential for pain? Like going to fight in a war, or donating a kidney? What’s going on there – why do so many of us sign up for that?

These are some of the conundrums The Sweet Spot gets into. It doesn’t claim to be the authority on the human appetite for pain and suffering, but it does share some interesting insights, which can give us pause for thought.

The pleasures of pain

Recently some of my friends have gotten into winter dipping. It’s this thing where in the bright, crisp coldness of winter, they go out to a lake, strip down into their swimming gear, brace themselves against the freezing air, and then, with their hands raised above their heads, wade into the icy water until they’re neck-deep. It’s so cold they can only be in there for a few seconds. But when they come back, they aren’t shivering intensely, as you might expect – they’re buzzing with energy, laughing, sparkling with an almost uncontainable joy.You probably have your own version of that type of experience, where you put yourself in an intense situation to feel something that’s both uncomfortable and blissful – too-much, but in a good way. These experiences all fall under a category researcher Paul Rozin calls “benign masochism.”Masochism was described by Freud as a pathology, a sign that we are mentally ill. I mean, choosing to hurt ourselves goes against all our survival instincts, doesn’t it? But benign masochism involves experiences that aren’t harmful or destructive in the long run. These kinds of experiences can actually make our lives more pleasurable.

Okay, now you might be wondering: How could short-term pain lead to pleasure?

Well, let’s do this. Let’s try and conjure up a scene of an intensely pleasing environment – we’ll call it paradise island. It’s a luxury resort on a tropical island somewhere. There you are, lounging in a deckchair on the beach, or maybe snorkeling among the tropical fish. You’re eating only the freshest, most delicious and beautifully prepared food. You’re sipping on cocktails as you watch a spectacular sunset. The only decisions you ever really need to make are whether or not you’re going to get another massage or carry on reading your book. Sounds sublime, doesn’t it?

Now picture yourself doing this for a week, and a month, and a year. Imagine you were destined to spend a lifetime repeating that same routine. Yep, you guessed it. You’d start to get bored and unhappy. Even paradise can get tiresome after a while.

That’s because we can adapt to any environment that we find ourselves in. Humans possess astonishing powers of adaptation. After a couple of weeks, paradise island will start to just feel normal, not special or amazing or fun. The thing is, the pleasure of the island lies in the fact that the rest of the year we’re not on it. We’re toiling away at work, dreaming about the day that we get to go on holiday. Pleasure exists in the stark contrast between normal life and that ideal life. It exists in the space between a hot, brief-but-intense pain, and the following relief and rush of endorphins. And even before we get to the pleasurable experience itself, we have the exquisite delight of the anticipation while we’re slogging through the tough part.

We choose uncomfortable, punishing experiences – so, engage in benign masochism – because those moments of pain actually amplify our pleasure later on. They create a sharp contrast that allows us to notice, appreciate, and enjoy good things – a contrast that makes the good stuff feel even better.

But contrast isn’t the only reason that people choose punishing experiences. There’s another very important motive, and this is it: pain can get us out of our heads.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the practice of BDSM. BDSM stands for “Bondage, Domination, Submission, Masochism.” It’s a sexual practice that’s been popularized by books like 50 Shades of Grey, and it’s a practice that involves power play, where one partner dominates another, sometimes with the use of pain. Participants could be tied up, or whipped, or spanked, or choked, or even shocked with an electric current. A very important proviso here, though: BDSM is consensual. All participants explicitly agree on what they’re comfortable doing, before they get into it. And like other benignly masochistic practices, the one experiencing the pain always, always has the power to stop it. And that’s absolutely essential to how BDSM is performed.

So, again, why would anyone voluntarily choose to be whipped, or shocked, or choked? Well, the contrast theory works here, too. The relief when the pain stops could make sex even more pleasurable in contrast. But there’s something else going on. The pain provides an experience that people usually only find in advanced meditation: a temporary stop on all other thoughts.

Your mind can be an unpleasant place to be – full of worries, anxiety, and self-criticism. Have you ever wished you could press pause on that from time to time? Well, it turns out that pain – intense, temporary pain – is a shortcut to getting there. This total obliteration of self as you might feel in practicing BDSM is powerful. But there are less violent and dramatic ways to be in the moment that also bring satisfaction to our lives. And many of these are achieved not through benign masochism, but through effort – the value derived from engaging in taxing or seemingly unpleasant activities. Effort.

Remember the paradise-island scenario? About how having too much of a good thing or that the normalization of a good thing will just leave you bored and frustrated? Well, besides the point that we need contrast to add value to our lives, there’s another reason why constantly being pampered will always be unsatisfactory: it requires zero effort on your part. It deprives you of one of the greatest satisfactions life can provide: enjoying the fruits of your own labor. But hold on a moment – not all effort is created equal. Loads of people avoid essential tasks like moving furniture, or cleaning. The payoff of doing it themselves doesn’t seem to outweigh the unpleasantness of the task. On the other hand, sometimes people exert themselves for no apparent reason – for example, by doing crossword puzzles or running a marathon. So what makes that kind of effort so appealing?

The answer to that takes us back to the idea of being present. Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about flow states: times in our lives when we’re completely engaged and absorbed in whatever we’re doing, when it feels like time stands still, and all other worries fade away.

Entering into this state of flow means engaging in something that provides just the right amount of challenge – finding the “sweet spot” between a task that’s too easy and boring, and one that’s too difficult. Getting lost in the flow can be enormously satisfying, like with the BDSM experience. You get a break from your noisy mind because you’re so focused. But there’s more to it. The most rewarding, effortful tasks give us the satisfactions of mastery. We can feel ourselves progressing, getting better, gaining skills, and conquering a challenge. And therein lies the magic and value of “effort.”

What’s the point? Meaning and purpose and other reflections

But there’s something missing – there must be more. The joy of being in the flow, or mastering new skills, isn’t enough to explain why people sign up for very grueling and dangerous situations, like climbing Mt. Everest, or going to war. For that, we need to introduce another important concept: meaning.

Renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl studied human resilience and flourishing in horrific circumstances. He found that people who felt their lives had a broader purpose – or meaning – were more resilient. In contrast to people who had no sense of their own lives having any significance, those equipped with a sense of purpose were able to rebuild their lives after great loss.Moments ago, I talked about the joys of effort and mastery – of doing a task for its own sake. But that’s only part of the story, because we don’t value effort equally. It might be tiring to climb up and down a flight of steps 5,000 times and, similarly, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. But while the former activity seems kind of pointless, maybe even a bit crazy, climbing a mountain seems brave and noble, even if there’s suffering involved. That’s because it’s seen as being a meaningful goal. In the same vein, if we want to understand why people volunteer to fight in dangerous wars, we have to consider the sense of meaning and purpose derived from that choice. What, for new recruits, is attractive about war? Well, for one, it gives them a sense of belonging – that they’re important and fighting a worthwhile cause. Yes, they may be sacrificing their lives, but their feeling is that it’s not for nothing. It’s for their group, or their country, or an ideal like “liberty.” It makes them feel like their lives have value, that they mean something because of the potential legacy of that sacrifice.But the decision to go to war may seem like a more fringe, extreme choice. A lot of us wouldn’t find the pull for meaning from that to be as strong. So let’s introduce a more popular choice in this pursuit for meaning – having children.

Having children makes no sense. At least, from a pleasure perspective. As far as pleasure goes, having children makes no sense.

What’s clear is that this choice can put parents’ lives under strain. After all, kids come with sleep deprivation, they cost a lot of money, and require complicated childcare arrangements, especially in countries like the United States, where there is no mandatory paid leave or other support. To put it bluntly, the choice to have children is often responsible for more arguments than money, sex, and a whole host of other controversial topics.

So, you might expect parents to say they regretted ever having children. But here’s the crazy thing: If you ask them if they do, they’ll almost always say no. In fact, they’ll say that having kids is the most significant thing that ever happened to them.

This points to an important distinction. While the experience of having children isn’t always rewarding or pleasurable on a daily level, it does provide parents with that sense of meaning I’ve been talking about. It makes them feel like, in the long run, their lives had purpose.

In a singular, magical turn in life, your existence is no longer just about you – it’s about somebody else. Somebody who’ll one day (hopefully) be their own person, too. Somebody who – as they develop and grow – constantly teaches and shows you that. So, it’s no surprise, then, that when psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team did research on parenting, they found that the more time people spend caring for their children, the more meaningful they thought their lives were.

The pain – if you will – of having children isn’t about benign masochism or about the joy of being absorbed in a specific task. It’s about something deeper, something that author Zadie Smith eloquently describes as “a strange admixture of terror, pain and delight.” You become so fiercely attached to them that you’re constantly fearing their loss or that they’ll somehow come to some harm and be irreparably damaged. But, as Smith reflects in that same essay, “It hurts just as much as it’s worth.”

Not everybody chooses to have children. Not everybody chooses to join an army or to climb Mt. Everest. But everyone shares in the need for a life lived with purpose, or with meaning.

So, the question then becomes: What kind of pain and difficulty and effort hurts as much as it’s worth? What gives you a sense of meaning?Because the idea of meaning is so important, but also very vague, let’s really take the time to unpack it a little more. Now we’re not looking for some universal ideal or standard of what makes a person’s life meaningful, or what makes one life more meaningful than another.

For one thing, that would take much longer than we have time for. For another, it’s a pointless quest – the answer to that question will change depending on your particular context and values and religious upbringing. What’s meaningful to one person, like having children, isn’t necessarily so meaningful to another.

So a much better question is: What gives your life meaning?

The components of a meaningful life

In 1988, Life Magazine asked the Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou and over a hundred other luminaries of the time, to reflect on what made life meaningful. As you can imagine, their answers differed widely. But they can be categorized as falling under four main themes.

Firstly, they described meaningful experiences as those which allowed them to connect with other people, and feel a sense of belonging.

Secondly, they felt like what they were doing had a purpose, or impact on the world. Usually, it was something that affected more people than just themselves.

Thirdly, they talked about transcending painful experiences like loss.

And finally, they talked about the necessity of being able to find a narrative to make sense of their experiences. This is key. Having a meaningful life is, in part, how you make sense of what has happened to you – the stories you tell yourself and other people about who you are, and why your life matters. Listen closely to the things that make you feel. Do you feel when you connect with others? Does physically engaging your body, or challenging your mind make you feel something? Do you sense that what you do has an impact?

Reflecting on questions like these can start to give you a sense of what makes your own life meaningful; of what pursuits hurt in direct proportion to their worth. And what you observe from these reflections will impact the stories you tell yourself about your own life. We embrace seemingly negative experiences because they provide pleasurable contrasts, or rewarding effort, or give life a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

Understanding the value of some kinds of suffering isn’t about trying to glamorize pain, or finding an artificial silver lining in terrible experiences. It’s not about punishing yourself in destructive ways.

Rather, it’s about realizing that not all pain is bad, and that difficulty and struggle and discomfort and other seemingly negative experiences aren’t something to be afraid of. They can also be something we choose and use strategically, because they can make us appreciate what we have. They allow us to fully inhabit the present. They teach us how much we’re capable of. So, did you like what you heard? Were you inspired? Were there parts of this that you felt could be improved? Let me know!

About the author

Paul Bloom, a psychologist, teaches at the University of Toronto. He’s also the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. A prolific writer, he’s been published in scientific journals as well as the New Yorker and the Atlantic. His other books include Just Babies, How Pleasure Works, and Against Empathy.

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