Do you think that life should be all pleasure and no pain? This week I want to talk about the balance between pain and pleasure and why if you want more pleasure, you may have to add more pain to your life.
“If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.”
The Paradox of Pain and Pleasure
A few weeks ago, I had an episode called Suffer Well, and in that episode I talked about how we should be willing to put ourselves in pain deliberately because it teaches us how to deal with unexpected suffering. I also talked about how exposing ourselves to the right amount pain helps us grow, become more confident in ourselves, and find purpose in our lives.
This week, I want to explore the link between pleasure and pain from a slightly different angle. Last week I was listening to a two part episode on Hidden Brain, which is one of my favorite podcasts to listen to. The episodes, The Paradox of Pleasure and The Path to Enough talked about research into the connection between pain and pleasure and how if we are only pursuing pleasure, we can actually end up causing ourselves a lot of pain.
In the episodes, Dr Anne Lembke, who is Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University, talks about how because pain and pleasure are colocated in the brain, when we experience pleasure and get a dopamine hit, the brain automatically tries to balance it out. Think of it like a seesaw, that as soon as you push on one side, the brain starts pushing on the other side to achieve balance, or what is called homeostasis. This is why when you indulge in something pleasurable, such as taking drugs, drinking alcohol, eating sugar, or even checking social media, your brain is constantly trying to balance things out. This is why we get a hangover, come down effects from things like drugs and alcohol, and reduced pleasure from social media.
This balancing act in our brains is why many people find pleasure when they do painful things. As I talked about in Suffer Well, when I’m out cycling and stressing my legs I notice that when I get home and I’m relaxing after my shower, I have this pleasurable buzzed feeling from the endorphins that my body produces after I exert myself. This is the same phenomenon as a “Runner’s High”, but on wheels. Almost any physical activity can generate similar effects. I know that I feel better after a walk, lifting weights, or even just 20 minutes of yoga.
Another example where pain can cause pleasure is when people who like to eat really spicy food talk about the pleasurable high that kicks in after eating something spicy. It’s because the body kicks in pleasure to help balance out the pain that you feel.
I like to think of this like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states, “For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. It appears that for pain and pleasure in our brains, this is also the case. The more we pursue pleasurable things, the more we create a dopamine deficit, and the more we do things that are challenging and at times painful, we are rewarded with a natural dopamine increase.
“A person who has built his life around pleasure is bound to be disillusioned. Hedonism is not sustainable, and it leaves a person empty. We are not meant to experience sustained pleasure. Therefore, to cope with the drab routine of daily existence, one must find meaning somewhere.”
While most people apply temperance to alcohol, we need to consider that almost anything can become an addiction. In fact, the researcher, Anna Lembke, talks about her own addiction that disrupted her life in a fairly dramatic way. And you might be surprised at what it was: romance novels. She became enthralled with the erotic portions of romance novels to the point where she would read until 3 or 4 in the morning even though she had to be at work early in the morning. She found herself reducing her time spent with family and friends. To keep others from knowing what she was reading, she bought a kindle. She was losing connection with the real world and escaping to fantasy in the pages of erotica.
Other addictions that are mentioned in episode include dugs, online gambling, pornography, shopping, food, video games, and even social media. We have so much instant pleasure at our fingertips we can easily find ourselves addicted without even really being conscious of what is happening. Because our brains are always trying to keep homeostasis, after a certain point, those pleasurable things can actually start to cause us harm.
Where we really start to run into issues with pleasure that when you keep doing something on the pleasure side, and you get that dopamine hit, then your brain tries to balance it out by reducing the pleasure you get from it. That means in order to get the same amount of pleasure you had from the previous hit, you have to have more. You can build up a tolerance to almost anything pleasurable, to the point where it starts to make you irritable, anxious, or even sick.
One of the most interesting things that I learned from this podcast is that often the thing that someone is addicted to is used not to treat the original issue, but to treat the comedown effect from the last use of it. Meaning that you use it, your brain counters it, then you have to use it again to try and block the negative effects from the last time you used it.
This was illustrated in the second episode of the podcast, where they talk about a patient named Delilah, who suffered from anxiety and depression and would smoke cannabis to help relieve those symptoms. But as Lembke worked with Delilah, she realized that the anxiety and depression that she was treating was actually being caused by the cannabis. She convinced Delilah to give up cannabis for 4 weeks to try and reset her dopamine levels.
After 4 weeks Delilah returned and talked about her experience. She said that in the first week she was vomiting violently because of the withdrawal from cannabis. She recognized that she had actually been addicted, and that her body had been changed by such chronic heavy use. After the four weeks of not using cannabis she said that she felt less anxious and depressed than she had felt in years.
Lembke herself talks about how when she gave up reading erotica, that the first two weeks she had terrible insomnia and even headaches as she was going through withdrawal symptoms from the lack of dopamine she was used to. She had to detox from the erotica in order to reset her dopamine levels.
So why does our brain work this way? Why does it try to limit pleasure and reward us for pain? Because it’s trying to keep us safe and help us grow. How does it keep us safe? Because often those things that offer instant pleasure are things that are not good for us in the long term. A good example of this is hard drugs like meth or heroin. While in the moment they feel incredibly pleasurable, they take their toll on those that use them. Our brain is doing its best to keep us alive by putting the brakes on pleasure.
On the flip side, our brains reward us for seeking out the right kind of pain. For example, when we exercise, it is uncomfortable and at times painful, we grow stronger, can run faster, and our bodies work better overall when we subject ourselves to certain levels of pain and stress. By pushing on the pain side, we get our brains to reward us by releasing pleasurable chemicals.
“Why do I keep repeating harmful behaviors/habits when I know they are bad for me?” Because they give you pleasure or help you avoid discomfort. And you are too weak to let go of a little pleasure or to bear a little discomfort.”
So now that we know how the brain handles pain and pleasure, what can we do to take advantage of this knowledge?
One of the best and worst things about modern life how much access we have to comfort and pleasure. In fact, it been shown in studies that as our societies have more access to easy pleasures and comforts, we have higher levels of unhappiness. It seems that the easier our lives have become, the worse off we are. People in developed countries as a whole report far higher levels of stress and anxiety than those in less developed countries.
When we learn to embrace discomfort, we are not only strengthening ourselves, but we are actually able to find more pleasure. When we learn how handle things that are challenging, we actually get a natural hit of dopamine when we overcome a problem. Taking on the right amount of physical pain and stress we are also rewarded as our brain tips the seesaw over towards the pleasure side. Our brains reward us for doing hard things.
Another reason why we often seek out too much pleasure is to cover up our own pain or unhappiness. Often times the addictive behavior comes from trying to escape difficult feelings. While these feeling are uncomfortable and at times painful, when we try to numb them out with pleasure, then we are creating another problem on top of the one that we are trying to avoid.
When we are willing to step up and face the difficult feelings, then our brains actually reward us. I know that in my own experience when I step up and try to work through things, even though it’s hard, I usually feel better about myself. When I make a breakthrough and handle a challenging situation better, while it may not be the pleasure hit from a good whiskey, there’s an underlying good feeling of accomplishment that lasts far longer because I’ve made some progress.
While listening to the episodes, it made me think about how the stoics teach us about the importance of moderation, also referred to as temperance. It is so important to the stoics, that it is one of the four virtues along with wisdom, justice, and courage. The stoics understood what neuroscience is discovering – that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, can actually cause us harm.
When we think about temperance or moderation, there’s often this idea that in practicing moderation we’re spoiling our fun. But the stoics knew from watching human behavior that the pursuit of nothing but pleasure and avoiding pain led to a life of excess and little growth. In fact, in writing about the pleasure seeking of the Epicureans, Seneca clearly states that when you seek out virtue first, then happiness will follow.
“Let virtue lead the way: then every step will be safe. Too much pleasure is hurtful: but with virtue we need fear no excess of any kind, because moderation is contained in virtue herself. That which is injured by its own extent cannot be a good thing: besides what better guide can there be than reason [as opposed to pleasure] for beings endowed with a reasoning nature? So if this combination pleases you, if you are willing to proceed to a happy life thus accompanied, let virtue lead the way, let pleasure follow and hang about the body like a shadow: it is the part of a mind incapable of great things to hand over virtue, the highest of all qualities, as a handmaid to pleasure.”
Here Seneca is pointing out that when we seek pleasure for its own sake, then too much can cause us harm. Seneca even points out, “That which is injured by its own extent cannot be a good thing”, he’s pointing out that sometimes pleasurable things can cause injury by using them to excess. For anyone who has had one drink too many, I think you can agree that there can be too much of a good thing.
When we act with virtue, then pleasure and happiness follow as a natural consequence. When we act with virtue it is also self regulating. You can’t harm yourself practicing moderation.
As the world moves faster and pleasure is easier to access, we find that people are lonelier and more unhappy than ever before because they are working against their own biology. The next drink, the next pill, the next bet, the next post gives us that next little hit of pleasure, but our own brain knows that easy pleasure always comes with a price. When we can instead learn to govern ourselves, to choose the harder path of growth and moderation, we can work with our biology, and find the pleasure in the pain.
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