The link between experiencing pain and happiness

Is it possible that experiencing pain is not always a bad thing?

Pain is generally something we try to avoid. The word alone can make us grimace as we are in continuous pursuit of making our lives more comfortable in order to steer clear of both physical and emotional pain.

In western culture, we are bombarded by media that suggests we need to be happier, more mindful and less stressed in order to lead healthier lives, however research has proven pleasure alone can not make us truly happy.

Two teenagers walking and talking to each other

Painful or negative life experiences help us grow and give meaning to our lives. They allow us to better understand what happiness really is and can make us more resilient when dealing with future adversity.    

The link between experiencing pain and happiness

Research psychologist Professor Brock Bastian argues that our efforts to seek out only the positive experiences in life weaken our ability to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties. 

“Sometimes exposing ourselves to pains which have a clear parameter around them can lead to a contrast and help us to experience more pleasure in life.”

Pleasure in life often comes from pushing ourselves and exposing ourselves to risks. We don’t push ourselves in our sporting endeavours for pleasure; we work hard, with pain, to achieve better results. The joy of doing well in school or university and passing exams is meaningless without the possibility of failure.

Several studies have proven that pain“brings us in touch with our immediate sensory experience of the world, allowing for the possibility that pleasures can become more pleasant and more intense.” An example of how this works is the sense of euphoria we experience after a painful run or gym session which has been linked to the production of endorphins that are released in response to pain and make us feel happy.

Bastian offers an alternative perspective by drawing an analogy to vaccine administration. By introducing an antigen or an inactive component of a virus into our body, vaccines can proactively prepare our immune system to ward off illness. In a similar vein, Bastian compares the experience of typical pain to the process of building resilience. 

A group of young people laughing together running up a hill

But how do we define pain?

Many factors can influence the experience of pain, and this is different for everyone. We commonly associate pain with physical experiences like injuries or illnesses, but pain is also felt in our everyday lives as emotional pain due to experiences like loss, loneliness, feeling a lack of support or disconnection, feeling disempowered or let down by a loved one and through the many other social interactions we have daily.

It is important to note that this research does not imply we should inflict harm upon ourselves to gain happiness – pain is not the same as harm and it is acknowledged that enduring excessive pain can have severely detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. 

Nonetheless, Bastian’s research plays a vital role in helping us comprehend that undergoing normal levels of pain throughout life can have various positive outcomes, potentially setting us up to more effectively manage our pain if it does escalate. 

It’s how we accept, react to and manage our pain that is important. So what can we do differently to better understand our pain?

Reframing how we think about pain to improve mental health 

Firstly, we need to be honest with ourselves when we experience life’s negatives. Failure and adversity are part and parcel of life and it can be tough, but we need to acknowledge these experiences have happened. 

What’s important is to recognise what the hard times can offer us. Moreover, to also understand that sometimes we might be seeking out these negative experiences in the first place to help us learn and grow – like pushing ourselves in school or sporting achievements or discussing a difficult topic with a friend – even if it isn’t immediately apparent. 

Additionally, securing the appropriate support when navigating difficult times is vital to ensure your pain is managed effectively. Tools like YourCrew allow you to track your daily moods so you can keep on top of your emotions, YourCrew helps you set up a support network who are with you always for when painful experiences get too much, and YourCrew provides access to many other help resources all in the one place.