You Actually Want to Suffer
Suffering. What a terrible thing. Pain, grief, heartbreak, humiliation—they’re the worst. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that suffering is bad, and we don’t want it. Right?
Wrong. Suffering is good. We want it. We feed and nurture our suffering, because it is our friend. The idea that suffering is awful—that we’re all trying as hard as we can to avoid it—is bullshit. It’s contradicted by almost everything we do.
For example, here’s a list of problems with the idea that humans want to avoid suffering:
We suffer regret. Yet when we make a huge mistake, we replay the mistake in our heads over and over again, sadistically rubbing our faces in it.
We suffer grief. Yet when a loved ones dies, we think about their most lovable qualities, pouring salt into the wound of our grief. Why don’t we think about their most annoying qualities?
We suffer infidelities. Yet we don’t say to our partners, “Hey, if you ever cheat on me, please lie to me about it. If I found out, that would make me suffer, and I hate suffering.”
We suffer when we discover people have been talking shit about us behind our backs. Yet we weirdly want to know when this happens, and we want to be told about all the excruciating details.
We watch horror movies. We voluntarily observe people getting brutally murdered and dismembered, which makes us feel scared and gives us nightmares.
We have nightmares. Why do we have nightmares? If our brains are designed to avoid suffering, then why do they torture us while we sleep?
We voluntarily torture ourselves. In a variety of studies, psychologists brought people into the lab and gave them two options: a) experience mildly painful electric shocks, or b) wait around for a few minutes. Most people chose the shocks!
When we’re teenagers, we stupidly fall in love with people who are out of our league, or who aren’t interested in us. We call these “crushes” because they lead to crushing heartache. It’s almost like we were trying to get our hearts broken.
Little kids make themselves suffer all the time. They get boo-boos for climbing on stuff they shouldn’t be climbing on, running around, and generally being stupid. Why aren’t kids more afraid of suffering?
We sometimes say that suffering helps us “grow” as people. It builds character or something. That’s weird.
We suffer bad news. Yet we read way more bad news than good news, even though we can’t do anything about the bad news, and even though there is plenty of good news available.
We spend time on Twitter.
Maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you still think suffering is bad and you’d like to avoid it. If so, I have just the thing for you. It’s a magic pill. If you take the pill, the following things will happen to you:
You will no longer suffer grief when a loved one dies.
You will no longer suffer regret when you’ve made a huge mistake.
You will no longer suffer disappointment when you fail to achieve your goals.
You will no longer suffer fear when you’re in danger.
You will no longer suffer anxiety when your reputation is in danger.
You will no longer suffer pain when your body is damaged.
You will no longer suffer anger when you get treated like shit.
You will no longer suffer guilt when you hurt someone you love.
Do you take the pill?
I’m guessing the answer is “no”. To take the pill is to obliterate your humanity, to give up on everything you care about. The pill is unappealing because suffering is good. You actually want to suffer.
Also, you don’t want to be happy. That’s what I argued in a previous post. Your brain evolved to seek stuff in the world—like food and status and safety—that was correlated with biological fitness in ancestral environments. But your brain did not evolve to seek stuff in your brain. That makes no sense.
In order to seek stuff in the world, your brain has to figure out when and where that stuff is going to show up. It has to theorize and make predictions. Here’s how I put it in the happiness post:
Your life is a guessing game that you play with the world around you. “Will they laugh at my joke?” “Will my paella taste good?”
Happiness is when you guess wrong but in a good way. You thought people would roll their eyes at your dumb joke, but they’re howling with laughter. You thought the paella would taste like shit, but it’s delectable. Happiness is like your brain saying, “getting warmer.”
But that doesn’t mean you want to be happy. When you play a guessing game, your goal is not to maximize the number of times you hear the words “getting warmer,” is it? No, your goal is to guess the thing. That’s why it’s called a guessing game. If you can guess the thing on the first try, without any “getting warmers,” that’s a good thing. That’s what you’re going for.
“Getting warmer”. That’s the key insight.
Now consider the opposite: “getting colder”. That’s what suffering is. Just as you don’t want to maximize the “getting warmers” when you’re playing a guessing game, you don’t want to minimize the “getting colders”.
In fact, you want the “getting colders”. They’re a big help! If your goal is to win the game, you wouldn’t want to skip the “getting colders”, would you? No, that would make the game much harder, increasing your odds of losing.
The same logic applies to suffering. If suffering is the “getting colder” signal, then your goal is not to avoid it. You might even want to pursue it, as a strategy for ruling things out. You might strive to trip and fall and get rejected and tell bad jokes that nobody laughs at, because that is useful information for you. “Getting colder” is a learning opportunity. That’s why you want to suffer.
And what’s more, you should want to suffer. When you suffer, your brain does all sorts of useful things for you. It figures out what went wrong, adjusts your expectations, updates your beliefs, gives you an adrenaline jolt (if you’re under threat), lowers your energy (if you’re helpless), and recalibrates your motivations to the right level. Suffering is useful. It’s designed by evolution to help you deal with bad things, avoid making them worse, and prevent them from happening again in the future.12
Once you recognize this fact, all the puzzles disappear. Why do teenagers get crushes on people out of their league? Because that’s how they learn what league they’re in. Why do little kids get so many boo-boos? Because every boo-boo is a learning opportunity for their clumsy little bodies. Why do we want to know when our partner is cheating on us, even if it makes us suffer? Because we’re not trying to avoid suffering; we’re trying to avoid being cheated on. Why do we watch horror movies, read bad news, give ourselves mild electric shocks, and have nightmares? So we can learn about dangerous stuff without putting ourselves in danger. Why do we say we “grow” from suffering? Because we do grow! It’s not bullshit.
But there’s another puzzle to solve. Why do we talk as if suffering is bad? It’s pretty weird when you think about it. Suffering is good for us—it helps us learn and grow—and yet we talk about it as if it were a mental substance of intrinsic hellishness. Why do we act like we hate suffering so much?
Because we’re bullshitting. Here are some reasons why we bullshit about the badness of suffering:
We want pity points. We’re like personal injury lawyers trying to milk the jury for sympathy. Personal injury lawyers don’t just want to recover lost wages for their clients; they want compensation for the “pain and suffering” caused by the injury. That means the “pain and suffering” have to be bad. Very bad. If they weren’t bad, they wouldn't merit compensation. So all of us, including personal injury lawyers, pretend that suffering is the worst thing in the world, because it maximizes the “compensation” we get from the jury of our peers—i.e., more yummy pity points.
We want to hide our unflattering motives. Our motives are often pretty ugly. For example, we feel “friendship jealousy” when our friends like other people more than they like us. But when we suffer friendship jealousy, we cannot come out and say why we’re suffering. We cannot say “I feel like shit because you’re spending time with people who are not me, and I want you all to myself, because I’m a clingy, selfish person”. Instead, we say "I’m feeling hurt”. When asked what’s wrong, we bullshit about the awfulness of what we’re feeling, as if the problem was a bad thing inside our heads, instead of our friend having a social life.
We want to show we care. Imagine something terrible happened to you. Say, you lost your job. You tell your friend about it and try to get sympathy. Your friend says, “Meh, big deal. I read a blog post about how suffering is actually good for you and you’re just bullshitting about how bad it is.” I’m guessing you would not think very highly of your friend. The point of a true friend is to help you through hard times. That means your friend has to see that you’re having a hard time and feel a powerful urge to help you. They have to take your suffering seriously. So friends engage in the social ritual of credulously believing each other’s sob stories, including their bullshit about the terrible suffering inside their heads, to show they care—that they’re good friends.
We want to cover our asses. When you want others to help you, it is often advantageous to draw attention away from the thing that caused you to cry for help—and toward, say, the bad feeling inside your head. For instance, imagine you really fucked up big time: you skipped work multiple times, missed important deadlines, and failed to change your behavior after multiple warnings. That’s the reason you lost your job—it was totally your fault. Now that you’re suffering as a result of your fuck-ups, it will be very helpful for you to draw attention away from your fuck-ups and toward your suffering. Rather than saying, “I fucked up and I’m getting what I deserve”, it’s much better for you to say, “I’m suffering terribly and it’s too much to bear.” That will get you more pity points.
We want to show how compassionate we are. By now, you’re probably starting to think I’m an asshole. The fact that I’m calling us out on our bullshit sob stories, including the collective fiction that we’re fleeing from bad stuff inside our heads, makes it seem like I’m kind of heartless—like I wouldn’t feel compassion for a friend in need. That’s why we love to tell and hear sob stories. We’re constantly competing to show how seriously we take each other’s suffering. It’s as if we’re saying “Hey, look at me! I’m soooo compassionate! If you were my friend or lover, and you fell on hard times, I would be soooo supportive of you!” The fact that I’m not sending these signals, which have become generally expected in our culture, makes me look bad by comparison—like I’m kind of an asshole. Well, the best I can do is say that I’m human, just like you, and I feel compassion for the people I care about, just like you. In fact, I felt so icky while I was writing this stuff that I felt the urge to include this weird, self-conscious disclaimer. The fact that I felt this urge is, itself, an interesting fact about human psychology, which incidentally fits very well with my theory.
My posts don’t usually have teachable moments, but I think there’s a teachable moment here. We need to rethink our relationship with suffering. We demonize it and fail to appreciate its benefits. We try so hard to protect our kids from suffering that we prevent them from learning and growing. We pretend our suffering is the worst thing in the world, because sympathy has become a form of status, our tears a social currency. We’ve forgotten the virtues of resilience, stoicism, and fortitude. These character traits have been virtues across cultures for a reason: they’re good. It’s good to be strong. It’s bad to be needy, to be a complainer, to be constantly fiddling away on one’s sadness-violin. Yes, being compassionate is good. But it’s also good to avoid being a burden on others—itself a form of compassion.
I know it’s become a cliche, but we really do grow from our suffering. That’s why we feel it. If we didn’t grow from it, or benefit from it in any way, it would not have evolved, and it would not exist.
Remember that the next time you’re suffering. It’s there for a reason. It’s doing something for you. It’s changing you. It’s helping you.
Let it help you.
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A couple caveats: first, I’m not saying that you want bad things to happen to you. That would be ridiculous. Of course you want to avoid making terrible mistakes and hurting the people you love. What I’m saying is that you want to experience the suffering caused by those bad things if they do happen. If you truly make a mistake, you want to feel regret. If you truly hurt a loved one, you want to feel guilt. Second caveat: I’m not talking about dysfunctional suffering. There might be cases where you want to avoid chronic pain when there’s nothing’s wrong with you, or chronic anxiety when everything’s fine. But these dysfunctional cases are pretty rare. Most of the time, for most people, suffering is necessary. It serves a vital function. It exists because millions of years of natural selection built it into your brain. That’s why, for the most part, you want to suffer.
Here’s a technical description of the model I’m imagining. The brain computes, using evolved and learned priors, which of various potential outcomes have the lowest expected value (in terms of fitness proxies). The lower the expected value of an outcome, the greater the motivation—i.e. the amount of attention and energy mobilized—to avoid it or prevent it from happening. “Suffering” is triggered by a negative prediction error. We suffer when the actual value of an outcome turns out to be lower than its expected value. This error causes us to rapidly mobilize energy (if more energy is needed), rapidly relax or feel "depressed" (if energy is no longer needed), attend to the negative outcome, simulate it in working memory, differentiate its perceptual features, determine which features were/are counterfactually unique to the outcome, downweight those features’ expected value, and encode them in long-term memory. After the outcome is dealt with, the unique features of the outcome will appear more threatening to us (i.e., more anxiety-provoking) the next time we encounter them. This is just another way of saying that we are “negatively reinforced”—i.e. the features that were unique to the outcome now have a lower expected value than they did before. If despite our best efforts, we continue to experience the negative outcome, we will get better at predicting its negative value based on its unique features (i.e. the prediction error will decrease), and we will suffer less when we experience it (i.e., we will be less surprised by it, attentive to it, and negatively reinforced by it). In other words, we will grow “numb” or “desensitized” to the bad outcome, while still devaluing it and seeking to avoid it. This model is an amalgam of (an inverted version of) the prediction error theory of dopamine and the internal regulatory variable theory of motivation.