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A good life is painful

Psychologist Paul Bloom on the importance of suffering, the shortcomings of hedonism, and why he would never plug into the Matrix.

Illustration of a silhouetted profile of a head with a raining cloud inside where its brain would be. Getty Images/Malte Mueller

Can we live a good life without suffering?

Notice that I used the word “good” and not “happy.” It doesn’t make any sense to ask whether we can suffer and be happy at the same time, but can we live a full and meaningful life without certain kinds of suffering? That’s a much harder question.

I just watched an episode of The Twilight Zone that explores this in a way only that show could. It’s about a gangster who dies and wakes up in a place that has all the markings of heaven — or at least what a guy like that would imagine as heaven. He has all the sex and money and power he wants. He loves it at first. But then he grows bored and aimless and starts to hate it. So he asks his guide if he can go to hell instead, and that’s when he learns he’s already there.

A new book by the psychologist Paul Bloom, called The Sweet Spot, says this story captures the strangeness of human psychology about as well as anything can. It’s a deep dive into the relationship between suffering and meaning, and why living a purposeful life means caring about much more than happiness.

The book isn’t pro-suffering, and Bloom is very careful to distinguish “chosen” suffering from “unchosen” suffering, but it is an attempt to explain why we sometimes seek out hardship and struggle, and why the conventional image of humans as purely pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding isn’t so much wrong as incomplete.

I reached out to Bloom for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. We talk about the role of suffering in human life, the shortcomings of hedonism, and why he would never plug into the Matrix.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Hedonism seems like a pretty straightforward path to happiness. If you offered people a chance to not have to work or do anything for money again and told them that they could live in a big house on a great beach with a grand pool and just swim and sunbathe all day, I feel like a lot of people would say, “Hell, yes.”

So what’s wrong with that?

Paul Bloom

A hedonist, and I know a few of them, might say, “Well, maybe they’ll regret a little bit at a time, but if they’re having fun 95 percent of the time and there’s regret 5 percent of the time, they made the right life decision.” And there’s a big debate in psychology over what we should try to maximize. Hedonists say you should try to maximize your day-to-day moments of pleasure, while the rest of us say that you should try to maximize other things as well, including your satisfaction with your life.

So there are lots of ways to answer this question. But my favorite way to think about this, and I know you’re going to be familiar with this, is a famous thought experiment by the philosopher Robert Nozick, who imagines an experience machine, which now everyone knows as the Matrix. They plug you in, and you’re in paradise. You have immediately lost your memory that you’re plugged in. So, you think you’re living your real life, but you are living a life of immense satisfaction, and challenge, and accomplishment, and carnal joy, and deep respect and everything; the best life possible.

But you’re on a table hooked up to some wires, and that’s you for the rest of your life. And then the question is, would you want to be strapped into the machine? And I’ve asked a lot of people this question in teaching moral psych courses and so on. Some people rank pleasure pretty highly and say, “Yeah, sure. Strap me in.” And certainly if I was in a prison or something, or had a sort of desperate situation, I’d much rather this life of pure pleasure than the life I’m living.

A lot of people say no, however, including Nozick, and me, and maybe you. Because I don’t just want to have experiences, I want to do things. Because I have people I love who I want to be with, and I want to take care of them, not just think I’m with them and take care of them. I’d be abandoning all sorts of friends and family. And yes, while I’m in the machine, I won’t know I’m abandoning them, but I’m abandoning them nonetheless, and that’s wrong. And so, all sorts of other non-hedonistic motivations lead me to say, “I’m going to take my real life.”

Sean Illing

Words like “happiness” and “satisfaction” and “pleasurable” get used interchangeably, but there are important differences here. How do you make these sorts of distinctions?

Paul Bloom

The vocabulary here is dreadful. People use the terms in different ways. And then they appear to be agreeing when they aren’t and disagreeing when they are. It causes a mess.

So, happiness as I see it has at least two meanings. One meaning is close to day-to-day pleasure. Experiments have been done: I give you an iPhone, it beeps at random times, whenever it beeps, you say how happy you are. And then we just take it, and we count it from one to 10, say, and we average it. And I say, “Your life, you’re at 7.8.”

But another sense of happiness is, I sit you down, I say, “Well, how good’s your life going? How happy are you? How’s it going for you?” Give you a scale from one to 10. Now, the numbers tend to correlate. So, maybe you say eight and a half, or seven, or something close, and they don’t tend to diverge that much, but they do diverge.

There are people who live lives of happiness where they’re really having a lot of fun, but they think they’re just living a crap life and they’re full of regret. And other people, and I met more of these, think they’re living a really terrific life. Imagine somebody with a lot of kids, and a stressful job, and they’re doing a lot of community work, and they have complicated relationships, and they say, “I’m overwhelmed. I have headaches all the time. There’s so much strife, so much struggle. I’m worried about people. And so on.” I ask, “How’s your life?” They say, “My life is wonderful.”

And so the question is, what do you want to maximize? Call them two types of happiness, or call one of them pleasure and another one satisfaction. And I would claim that we want to maximize both. Give me the choice; nobody is indifferent to pleasure, and nobody should be, that seems like madness, but we also want to maximize satisfaction, and we take it as very important.

The cover of the book “The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning,” by Paul Bloom, author of “Against Empathy.” Courtesy of Ecco Press

Sean Illing

Do you think most people are confused about what makes them happy?

Paul Bloom

As a psychologist, I feel I’m supposed to say yes because that’s one of the credos, people don’t know what makes them happy. Psychologists used to believe very strongly that money doesn’t make you happy. And then we would laugh at all the people who thought money makes you happy. And now it turns out that, maybe not surprisingly, money does make you happy. The more money you make, the happier people are, and you give people money, they become happier. You take away their money, they become less happy because money buys things like food and security and safety and housing and travel and stuff like that.

I think to some extent people are mistaken, and I’ll give you the sort of classic examples, which is we tend to overstate the value of certain possessions. They do make us happy, but we quickly burn out. And we tend to underestimate experiences and relationships. Sometimes I go to open houses and look at really cool houses, and sometimes I’m going to fantasize about living in one of those houses. And honestly, when my kids were pretty young, I would have a recurring fantasy of living in some sort of penthouse apartment in New York.

But the truth is that’s not the kind of thing that makes a person happy. They sit in this beautiful penthouse and then they want a friend to share it with, they want people to hang out with. I think the one thing people miss is, from both a happiness point of view and also a purpose, meaning, point of view, the power of the right social connections.

Sean Illing

The decision to have kids is such an interesting phenomenon. As you point out, having kids diminishes our day-to-day happiness, reduces marital satisfaction, and that stuff doesn’t really go away until the kids are out of the house. To just ask, “Why are we having kids?” seems dumb because the answer is obviously continuing the species. But on an individual psychological level, why do so many of us actively sign up for so much unhappiness?

Paul Bloom

Yeah, I think it’s a really good question. Having kids for me is kind of a case study through which to explore what people want. And I know a lot of people who don’t have kids and live rich and fulfilling lives. There’s no way this conversation ends with me saying it’s a no-brainer. Maybe some people’s lives would be a lot better if they didn’t.

But the thing about kids, the original studies showed that kids were just a killer, happiness-wise, a lot less pleasure for parents and for non-parents. As always with psychology, later studies find it’s more complicated.

It turns out that a lot of factors determine your happiness. Men tend to be happier being dads than women being moms. Older people tend to be happier than younger people. Single parents have it pretty rough. And there’s an enormous country difference. All of the original data was done in the United States, and then there was a study that came out looking at 42 countries, and it turns out that the happiness hit for parents is worse in the US than in any other country, probably because of child care issues. But to some extent, your question still remains.

Nobody doubts it’s tough. From a strictly hedonic point of view, spending years with young children is not what you would choose. And yet we do choose it. And we don’t regret it, for the most part. And so the question is why, and I think the answer is that children are not predominantly a hedonic choice. They’re not a pleasure-increasing mechanism.

People choose to have children, and then love their children, and love what they’ve done. Maybe because it gave meaning and purpose to their life. Maybe because they love their children and once you love somebody, you honestly don’t wish that they didn’t exist. And it’s complicated. There are studies which ask people, “How happy are you?” And parents versus non-parents, the data are all over the place, but sometimes non-parents give you higher scores. Then there are other studies where somebody asks how meaningful your life is, and then it goes the other way.

After my book came out, there was a very interesting article by Erin Westgate and Shigehiro Oishi, on psychological diversity and diverse experiences, where they argue that people want some degree of variety in their life experiences. And for me, having kids introduced me to a new emotion, introduced me to a new feeling, which is intense love of a sort that’s not romantic and not towards a friend. The feeling of parental or paternal love for me was like seeing a whole different color, and a whole different set of feelings. And again, nothing is unmixed. I quote Zadie Smith, who just speaks wonderfully about the horribleness of having kids, and the horrible risk of having kids.

Sean Illing

Right, because you might lose them. And you just mentioned romantic love, but that seems to me a similar puzzle with a similar answer. The happiness arithmetic there doesn’t really add up either, since loving another person romantically requires total vulnerability and the absolute guarantee of loss and real pain, but we do it anyway because we can’t help it, but also because the peak is unintelligible without the valley. To experience that kind of joy is to risk that kind of suffering.

Paul Bloom

That’s right. And, Zadie Smith again, she quotes a condolence letter, which had the line, “it hurts as much as it’s worth.” And that’s the logic of it. The comedian Louis C.K. has a bit on this, where he talks about romance and falling in love and everything. And he points out that the very best case is that you’ll spend an enormous amount of time with each other, and one of you will die leaving the other one bereft. That’s the best case.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.