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Why Choosing Pain May Be The Key To A Meaningful Life

November 12, 2021

Pain and discomfort are linked to pleasure and meaning in life. Use these 6 strategies to expand your flexibility in the presence of discomfort.

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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There are a lot of paradoxes in psychology, such as “the harder you try to fall asleep, the less likely you will” and “the more you try to not think negative thoughts, the more likely they will pop into your head”. And according to newer research, effort and pain can produce some of our greatest pleasures and meaning in life.

When I interviewed Paul Bloom, author of The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning on Psychologists Off the Clock, we talked about some surprising aspects of human nature. For example, why painful experiences and things, like scary movies or spicy foods, can feel so good. We discussed the inherent link between pain and meaning.

Let’s try an experiment to illustrate this coupling. Consider the following activities: Go through the list below and mentally checkmark which ones are uncomfortable for you. Mentally double-check the ones that are meaningful or important to you in some way.

  • Saying no to people, projects, and activities when your plate is full
  • Resolving a conflict with a family member
  • Listening with an open mind to someone who has a different political view than you
  • Waking up early to move your body, even when you are exhausted and it’s dark outside
  • Staying at an event where you feel socially anxious
  • Turning down a drink, food, or other substance at a social event when you know you have had enough
  • Traveling with young kids
  • Asking for a raise, time off, or to work more from home in the new year

Any overlap? You aren’t alone.

A Meaningful Life Is Not Pain-Free

The more you engage in meaningful activities, the more likely you are to experience discomfort. If you are a parent you should know this by now. Not only is discomfort associated with purposeful activities like parenting, service work, owning a pet, and social justice, but experiencing pain can be pleasurable in its own right. For example, hot yoga, deep tissue massage, eating spicy food, running long distances can be enjoyable because they create contrast. According to Paul Bloom, there’s a break from self-rumination and an increase in socially-signaled strength and competence.

Pain may also play an important role in our dopamine balance. Anne Lembke, author of Dopamine Nation, and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic posits when we hyperstimulate pleasure centers of the brain with dopamine, we end up experiencing more dysphoria. Our brain seeks homeostasis by upping our pain to balance out too much pleasure. Taking a “dopamine detox” and residing more on the pain side of the equation, paradoxically resets our brain to experience pleasure more fully.

How to Skillfully Choose Pain and Meaning

As a therapist, I ask my clients to choose pain all the time in the service of meaning. Exposure therapy is at the foundation of some of the work I do. Much of exposure is based on the principle of choosing pain in the service of growing, what Russ Harris calls, your “zone of flexibility”. With exposure, you flexibly turn toward what is uncomfortable because doing so will allow you to live a richer and fuller life.

Here are 6 strategies to expand your flexibility in the presence of discomfort:

  1. Focus on the power of choice. Most mornings, I get up early to run, lift heavy things, or practice sitting in silence–all in the service of health and wellbeing. If someone were to force me to do any of these activities they could be considered torture. Choice is a powerful psychological tool. Choosing to experience pain as opposed to resisting it changes your relationship with it. You can even take on the mindset of choice with activities that feel “inflicted on you” by shifting your mindset to  “yes brain” as Dan Siegel calls it. Consider attending a social event, how would your relationship with the event shift if you change your mindset to choosing to be there versus being “forced” to go? Choose to take a step toward what is uncomfortable, especially when what you care about is in the same direction.
  2. Turn up the meaning dial. Often when we are experiencing pain we are so engrossed in avoiding it, distracting from it, or being overwhelmed by it, we get disconnected from what’s important in the moment. Imagine you have two dials. One is the pain dial and one is the meaning dial. Every time you turn the meaning dial, it automatically turns the pain dial. They are tethered! Should you turn down the meaning dial? Of course not. Instead, we can practice making space for the discomfort, while focusing our attention on the benefits of the meaning dial. When focused on meaning and purpose, you may find that you have greater distress tolerance and resilience.
  3. Stay grounded in the present. In an interview with happiness expert Sona Lubomirski that my colleague Yael Schonbrun had on Psychologists Off the Clock, Sona shared about research on painful experiences. If you break up painful experiences into smaller chunks (e.g., taking a break during dental drilling) they tend to be more painful, not less! Anticipation of pain is almost worse than the pain itself! Our minds can tell us terrible stories about what is coming next. When choosing to enter an uncomfortable situation, stay in the present moment with the discomfort. Just this minute, just this moment. Present moment focus helps free you from your mind’s doom and gloom about the pain that is to come. You don’t need to tolerate future pain, you only need to tolerate the discomfort of just right now. Now, that’s doable.
  4. Physicalize your discomfort. Like a lot of people, I tend to get anxious before bed and my mind can get caught in rumination and worry. Physicializing is an effective practice to help you get out of your head and into the sensations of your body. When you notice a physical or emotional discomfort show up try turning toward it in your body. If you could describe the discomfort’s shape, color, movement, weight, what would it be?  By turning toward and observing your discomfort you do three things: you give your mind a job other than ruminating and worrying, you develop an observer self that can recognize that although you are experiencing pain you are not your pain, and you befriend your discomfort. Pain is less scary when you welcome it.
  5. Expand your perspective. When your threat system is activated you tend to get a narrowed focus on danger and negative stimuli. Instead of getting caught in tunnel vision try taking perspective on your experience by zooming out a bit. When else have you done something hard that was meaningful? How did the discomfort change over time? You can also take perspective on the common humanity of discomfort. Building mastery, growing relationships, learning new skills is uncomfortable for everyone. Remember discomfort is part of the human experience.
  6. Transcend yourself. When you choose pain in the service of something bigger than you, you get the benefit of transcending your small self. We can be self-focused strivers, especially in our current environment where we are bombarded with consumerism and long lists of to-dos. Transcend your small self by stepping into a service-oriented, caring, and compassionate mind. Discover the bigger benefits of turning toward your pain with kindness, so that you can turn toward others with kindness. Bring awareness to a greater sense of interconnection.

To sum it up, pain and discomfort are part of a well-lived life. Practice opening yourself to your full experience and you may discover greater freedom. To learn more about how to grow acceptance and values into your life, check out these 6 body-based tips.

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