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Psychologist Paul Bloom on finding meaning between pain and pleasure

Podcast & Video

Canadian psychologist Paul Bloom is a best-selling author, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. In our latest Dialogue, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer sits down with him to discuss his latest book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, which explores the notion that chosen suffering is crucial to crafting a meaningful life.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a couple of questions about time biases, our sense of the future, and how they affect one’s feelings of meaning, purposes and happiness. Is there a relationship between a tendency towards futuristic thinking and one’s sense of meaning?

PAUL BLOOM: Well, people use the term meaning in different ways. But one way which I think captures the core of the notion is that a meaningful project has certain properties – namely, it has significance. It affects other people and involves a protracted period of time. It’s the sort of thing you would tell a story about.

What generally falls into this category are things like raising children, climbing Mount Everest, starting a business, or starting a war – something of that scope.

We want our lives to have meaning, and we are willing to suffer to willingly to get there. One way to put it is that we curate our activities, so that when we look back upon them, we’re satisfied of what we’ve done, even if they were unpleasant at the time.

SEAN SPEER: If having a future orientation in the form of a long-run project contributes to greater happiness and meaning, why do we oftentimes have a time bias? How can people overcome a bias towards short-termism?

PAUL BLOOM: It’s an interesting question. I’ve written elsewhere about biases in time. Economists, psychologists and policymakers complain that we have sort of a short-term bias. Sometimes we would rather get one marshmallow now rather than two marshmallows later, and that’s generally fine. But often it has bad consequences, such as failing to save money to the future, or, as a society, not worrying enough about future threats such as climate change.

I think one way to avoid dangerous time biases is to ask yourself, what you would suggest if it wasn’t you involved in this choice, but a third party. What would we think is the right course of action for him or her? That’s usually a good guide for how to think about potential trade-offs between the present and the future at least on an individual level.

SEAN SPEER: OK. Let’s come now to the sweet spot in your book’s title. What is the sweet spot? Is there a certain amount of pain and suffering that actually contributes to pleasure and happiness? And how should we think about the interrelationship between pain and suffering, and ultimately, pleasure and happiness?

PAUL BLOOM: My book, among other things, makes the claim for what you call motivational pluralism. That’s a fancy term meaning that if you ask what people want, you get more than one answer. I reject one-word answers. It’s not as simple as just pleasure, purpose, meaning, or morality. It’s a combination of all of them.

A good life, a life well-lived, will of course involve pleasure. But it will also involve meaningful, difficult projects and it probably require suffering, anxiety and stress that will detract from pleasure.

So, the sweet spot, in my book’s title is about the ideal position, where you properly balance, pleasure and meaning, good times and suffering. An ideal life finds the sweet spot.

Now, my book is not a self-help book. But it is an exploration of what we want and what goes into these different appetites that people have, and people might find it useful as they try to find their own sweet spot.

SEAN SPEER: How do altruism and compassion correlate with pleasure and happiness? How do they fit into the equation of pleasure and happiness, pain and suffering, and the other aspects that represent a complete and full life?

PAUL BLOOM: Well, a lot of what I argue for is a case against a strong version of hedonism. A strong version of hedonism both says that all we want is pleasure, and, from a philosophical perspective, it says “that’s good, and that’s what we should want.”

Morality is an objection to both of these positions. For one thing, humans have a lot of drives, a lot of things we’re interested in. One thing is that we want to be good, and we will give up pleasure in a simple sense to do the right thing, or even to punish somebody who’s a wrongdoer. So, the hedonism claim misses out on an important part of human nature, which is our moral core.

From a more normative philosophical point of view, morality is an objection to hedonism. So, if you said that you’re going to spend your whole life taking drugs and drinking booze, and if you were successful and you were just permanently happy, you still wouldn’t be living well. You wouldn’t be improving the world in any way; you wouldn’t be helping friends and family, and you wouldn’t be making the world a better place. So, even if one could successfully be a hedonist, that person would be a jerk, and nobody wants to be a jerk.

People who pursue happiness tend to be less happy.

SEAN SPEER: This sweet spot that you’re describing operates at the individual level. But is there a way to think about these questions in a collective sense? That is to say, can a society live in a moment or at a time when the balance between pleasure and happiness, pain and suffering can be out of whack in the aggregate?

PAUL BLOOM: Well, societies can decide what to emphasize, what to reward, and what to punish through various means including something as simple as the design of taxes and social programs.

One example of this is the following: I think a good society values work and accomplishment, and gives dignity to work, even work that some people would find menial. I think such a society would capture a key human truth: That in doing work that’s respected and making  a difference no matter how big or small is something that is far more gratifying to a person then simply sitting there doing nothing.

Similarly, from an educational standpoint, a good society establishes and promotes certain values. In the United States, of course, there is the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental value, which is a good value, but there are other values as well. Some of them involve being a good person, and some of them involve meaningful pursuits. Both of these values may at times may push you away from pleasure. I don’t think anybody would ever want to tell their kids that the number one thing in life is to feel pleasure and to experience good times and that’s all that matters.

Also, from a more practical point of view, one of the interesting findings from psychology is that, even if you think happiness and being happy is all that matters, people who pursue happiness tend to be less happy. It’s one of the paradoxical effects. The pursuit of happiness seems to be correlated with depression, misery, and anxiety. If you want to be happy, the first bit of advice is this: don’t try to be happy, and pursue other things.

SEAN SPEER: In a 2017 article for Nature, you and your co-authors argued that people are more concerned with fairness than equality and, in fact, people are actually comfortable with higher levels of inequality than we currently have as long as they believe that society is broadly fair. Yet our politics and public discourse focus so much on the question of unequal outcomes. Are we misinterpreting what people are trying to tell us? Should we be focused more on fairness than the goal of equality?

PAUL BLOOM: Yeah, this article you mentioned, I think it’s a wonderful article. I can say that because I wasn’t the primary author. This was Christina Starmans, who is also a professor at University of Toronto.

In this article, we make the argument, supported by a lot of evidence, that people don’t want equality. What they want is equity and fairness, and that often involves inequality.

Nobody is disturbed when people who work harder and contribute more get rewarded for their work. When you ask people what kind of society they want, not asking philosophers or theologians, but regular people, they’ll say they want an unequal society, one that has social support, so that nobody is too screwed, but one in which people are ultimately rewarded for their efforts and talents. One way to think of about is people have a preference for fairness far more than equality.

Now, it’s complicated, because alongside intuitions that sometimes inequality is a good thing, there’s certain parameters where we want equality no matter what. For instance, in many countries, including Canada, people get one vote. So, if you’re richer than me, smarter than me, have more kids, you don’t get two votes: you just get one that’s evenly distributed. The same often goes for health care. Every decent society says, “no matter where you are, you should have access to some degree of health care.”

But nobody is really disturbed by the fact that J.K. Rowling or Serena Williams makes more money than me. They’re geniuses at what they do, so of course they should get more money. It would be an injustice if I got paid as much as them. And so, when we try to construct a good society, we should keep in mind in what people actually want.

SEAN SPEER: Well, Paul, it’s been a privilege to speak to you about your book The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. I’m sure our readers will agree that the book is ultimately as fascinating as our conversation. Thanks for joining us.

PAUL BLOOM: Thank you very much for your time.