The Happy Life – Pain

(This is the first installment of a series called “The Happy Life” in which I will explore what I believe to be some important elements to living the happiest life.)

…and so, of course, we start with pain.

Pain hurts.  Brilliant, right?  Today I argue in favor of pain.

Now pain comes in many flavors and I’m not arguing in favor of the life-threatening variety. I’m arguing in favor of the kind that toughens you up….and in order for that to happen this pain has to challenge you, to create a little doubt about your ability to withstand it.

Pain is a test.  If you survive it with dignity you are rewarded with confidence and perspective.

I’ve heard professional athletes describe the brutal training that they endure as painful.  Some of them have said that they learn in their athletic careers the value of becoming more comfortable with pain….which in turn allows them to become more comfortable with the habits, both physically and nutritionally, that allow them to optimize their athleticism.

And really, isn’t discomfort the thing that keeps most people from exercising?  Or taking risks in their professional life?  Or taking a chance on a personal relationship?

No pain, no gain.  No risk it, no biscuit.  No chance it, no…uh, okay I’ve got nothing to rhyme with “chance it” but you get the picture.

I used to manage an old building with very leaky galvanized pipes.  It leaked like a Hollywood publicist!

My head of maintenance taught me that a properly repaired pipe or joint is far less likely to leak at the site of the repair than in some other spot. The leak site (source of the pain) once repaired is STRONGER than the original site of the leak and the rest of the original pipe.

I think what is true of pipes is true of people.

Physical pain, some professional pain, as well as painful matters of the heart, can leave you stronger than before.  And isn’t that really one of the primary goals of a Happy Life?  Pain has value.

Have you experienced a productive level of pain in your life?  Did you understand it to be productive at the moment of your greatest discomfort?

And does the pain you are feeling RIGHT NOW have a chance at moving you forward toward a stronger, and therefore happier, life?  I hope so….

Hurts so good….

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9 Replies to “The Happy Life – Pain”

  1. Pain is one form of negative reinforcement, sometimes useful as a training device as punishment. That said positive reinforcement has been shown to be far superior as a training device. Ask yourself if you would inflict pain on a loved one, not as punishment but as a means of making their lives better. My experience says love is far more effective.

  2. No argument here…..I agree positive reinforcement is a much more effective method for changing behavior in others than punishment.

    However, what I was going for in this piece is the idea that pain in your own life, whether taken on strategically (i.e. exercise) or involuntarily (i.e. failed relationship / unexpected career change) can be a catalyst for personal growth whose value may not be initially clear but perhaps should not be discounted.


  3. I think I agree in general — if you handle it right, the pain life hands you can make you stronger, wiser, kinder. It’s hard to handle it right, though, and easy to THINK you’re handling it right when you’re actually crippling yourself (I am an expert at this). Especially ways you learn to deal with pain in childhood are not always (are hardly ever, really) the best ways, but it’s easy to get locked into them.

    No way around pain, though–it’s the first of the Buddha’s four noble truths!–so finding ways to handle it that soften and strengthen you rather than harden and damage you is a pretty crucial job for human beings.

  4. That last part about the four noble truths grabs me a little bit. What I gather from your comment is that the Buddhist perhaps view pain as inevitable on some level (sounds right to me)….and if you accept that as true then having some degree of vision and foresight might allow you to understand contemporary pain in the broader context of a future benefit, a strengthening of some sort.

    Interesting to think about…(he said doing a quick inventory of his personal set of current pain points…..long list!)

  5. I am grateful for many instances of pain in my life. Pain is often responsible for breaking down my stubbornness and humbling me enough to where I am willing to listen to advice from others. Memories of those pains prevent me from repeating past mistakes. Those pains also give me wisdom to pass down to those who are seemingly headed for pain. These days, the pain I endure most involves overcoming fear. It is not comfortable for me to meet with potential clients to earn their business, but the more I do it and succeed, the more comfortable it is.

  6. YES!!! Exactly! You said it much better than I did.

    There are two things that jump out at me about your comment. First “Grateful for Pain” ought to be one of those slogan t-shirts people where to the gym (copyright Mike Nichols!). Second, the word “wisdom” captures it well, right? Pain is a path (not necessarily THE path) to wisdom from my perspective.

    Love it. Thanks for jumping in!

  7. (The buddhist take on pain–not that I’m an expert but when has that stopped me?–is that pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. In other words, we can change our relationship to pain by accepting that it’s there, rather than by craving what we want but don’t have, or feeling intense aversion to what we have but don’t want. I think of a 4yo who knows they’re going to get a shot: watching them, you can’t help but think “kid, the pain of the shot is going to last like 10 seconds, but you are creating a whole day-long anguished drama about it.” That’s turning pain into suffering. Of course this is a) hard to do and b) tricker than it sounds. Does that mean you should be like “oh, there’s someone beating a dog to death: well, I guess I must just accept it.” No. But you do go in to try to change it without clinging to your idea about what the result should be. Or: someone you love very much dies. Are you not supposed to feel pain and grief? No, of course you do, you just experience it and try to let it do its work and pass on without struggling against it. This is the longest parenthetical of all time!)

    1. Here’s what jumped out at me in your latest comment….”try to let it do its work and pass on without struggling against it”.

      That hit a note for me. Pain is working on something FOR you. Working through grief, overcoming a fear (Mike’s comment), even the four year old who creates unnecessary suffering at the thought of pain…..all of these things eventually (potentially) lead to growth of some sort. It might be a fuller appreciation of a lost loved one seen in the context of the entire life, greater appreciation for those whom you have not yet lost, or more confidence in your professional life, or simply learning to put temporary discomfort in its proper perspective.

      Maybe a pain free life would mean a life without…..growth.

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