“The Sweet Spot” by Paul Bloom: Pain into Positive

Psychologist Paul Bloom has a knack for turning certain ideas on their heads. Whereas in Against Empathy (see my previous post) he made a case for seeing certain types of supposed caring as projection versus actual compassion, in his newest, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, he twists pain into something positive and happiness into the unexpected.

Reviewing the latter, attorney Greg Lukianoff states, “It turns out that, like all things human, happiness can be confusing, paradoxical, embarrassing, and sometimes just bizarre.” And psychologist Adam Grant: “This book will challenge you to rethink your vision of a good life. With sharp insights and lucid prose, Paul Bloom makes a captivating case that pain and suffering are essential to happiness. It’s an exhilarating antidote to toxic positivity.” (See this previous post on toxic positivity.)

An excerpt from The Sweet Spot on the Behavioral Scientist website is about the paradoxes. He offers examples of pertinent research and then concludes with the following remarks:

It turns out, then, that if you think something is really going to hurt and it hurts just mildly, the magic of contrast can cause this mild hurt to transform into pleasure. Now, I’ll add the obvious here, which is that you’re not going to get this effect if the pain gets too intense. If you think you’re going to get a blow- torch applied to the back of your hand and the experimenter instead pokes you with the lit end of a cigar, you won’t go Whee! But this evidence does suggest that it will hurt a bit less.

…(E)veryone knows that food never tastes so good as when you are hungry, lying on the sofa is blissful after a long run, and life itself is wonderful when you’re leaving the dentist’s office.

And in The Atlantic Bloom describes studies regarding the psychological effects of parenting on one’s life. Some of the research concludes that having kids may be unfavorable to one’s overall well-being, but not for all. “Children make some happy and others miserable; the rest fall somewhere in between—it depends, among other factors, on how old you are, whether you are a mother or a father, and where you live.”

Despite the pitfalls, what about the fact that most parents don’t regret having children? Bloom’s theories include possible memory distortion, the importance of attachment, and the idea that finding meaning in life can outrank happiness.

Regarding the latter, which also applies to areas other than parenting, Meghan O’Gieblyn, New Yorker, states:

This is not to say that the only meaningful life is one of agony and drudgery, Bloom writes. Some studies have found that happiness and meaning are correlated—that if you have one, chances are you have the other. For Bloom, this is evidence that there is a Goldilocks principle at play, what he calls ‘the sweet spot.’ The key is not to seek out pain indiscriminately but to pursue tasks that entail exertion or an element of risk…

Bloom’s previous book, ‘Against Empathy,’ was subtitled ‘The Case for Rational Compassion,’ and ‘The Sweet Spot’ is in many ways a case for rational suffering, a guide to making life better through the measured incorporation of pain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.