From 1956 to 1964, one of the most popular daytime television programs was “Queen for a Day,” a game show that rested on a simple, and savage, premise. In each episode, four women who had suffered recent hardships spoke candidly about their experiences on live TV. At the end of the half hour, one woman would be crowned queen and showered with prizes. One of the so-called misery shows of that era, along with “Strike It Rich” and “Glamour Girl,” it largely featured working-class contestants: widows whose husbands had been killed in hunting accidents, mothers of chronically sick children, grocery-store owners who couldn’t afford to stock their stores. In addition to the prizes, each winner was granted a request for some product or service, which tended to be practical and not infrequently macabre. One contestant entered the show in the hope of hiring a carpenter to patch the bullet holes above her bed left by her husband’s suicide. Another, a Holocaust survivor, wanted funds to have her tattoo from Auschwitz removed.
Old episodes can be found online, but they are hard to watch. The contestants aren’t versed, as reality-show stars are today, in the grammar of television; they have trouble maintaining eye contact with the host, and nervously wrap their handkerchiefs around their fingers. The plainspoken dignity with which they narrate their misfortunes is frequently astonishing. “I had two handicapped sons,” one contestant says. “I lost them, and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away, along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” At the end of each episode, audience members applaud for the woman they think is most deserving. The cheers are measured by an applause meter, which rises, predictably, in relation to the severity of a woman’s suffering. The winner is given a jewelled crown and a sable-trimmed robe, plus appliances, new clothes, a vacation.
The television writer Mark Evanier has called “Queen for a Day” “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” but it’s merely a crude example of a formula employed by more recent series, such as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “American Idol,” which also favor contestants who have endured adversity. The appeal of such narratives is ancient, perhaps even primal, recalling the promises of religious traditions: that tribulation begets atonement, that karma will settle all scores, that those who mourn will receive their reward. Surely suffering should get you something—if not redemption and eternal life, then mass sympathy, modest fame, and an Adler automatic sewing machine. The ghastly element of “Queen for a Day,” no less crucial to its appeal, is the starkly transactional way in which this justice is enacted. No matter how fervently we believe that the bearing of pain deserves reward, we blanch when the calculus is made transparent, or when a victim takes too active a role in her own compensation, cashing in on life’s raw deals. God rewards long-suffering in his own time. Deals and bargains are the jurisdiction of the Devil, who was always more in touch with modern economics.
But the truth is that we make these kinds of bargains all the time, trading pain for something better. Studies have identified evidence of “post-traumatic growth,” a phenomenon in which searching for the good in a major life crisis results in higher psychological functioning and other mental benefits. The events we consider most central to our identities are often tragedies—an illness survived, an addiction tamed, a financial difficulty overcome—as though we believed adversity to be the price of wisdom and personal improvement. Contrary to what one might expect of pleasure-maximizing creatures, we often seek out pains, both monumental (going to war) and trivial (going to the gym). We run marathons, have children, and toil long hours in the office, all in expectation of uncertain rewards.
Modern theories of behavior have tried to quantify what, exactly, people hope to get in return for their pain. The British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham held that all actions, including those which might appear antithetical to self-interest, are motivated by the anticipation of an advantage—usually pleasure. Freud’s “pleasure principle” reiterated this idea, allowing that the motivation could be unconscious; in “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” Freud argues that, though the self-flagellating monk and the altruistic saint might convince themselves that they are immune to the allure of personal profit, their libido is simply exchanging outer pain for the relief of inner guilt. More recently, behavioral economists have demonstrated how bad we are at anticipating the rewards of our actions, but they have preserved the assumption that we all think about the world in terms of costs and benefits, investments and returns. We don’t always balance the equation correctly, but we are always, in the back of our minds, doing the math. “Men calculate,” Bentham wrote, in 1789, “some with less exactness, indeed, some with more; but all men calculate.”
“Why do I like pain, and what am I getting out of it?” Leigh Cowart asks early on in their new book, “Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose.” Cowart, a science journalist and a self-described “high-sensation-seeking masochist,” maintains that one of the most immediate rewards of pain is physical pleasure. When the brain senses that the body is imperilled, its endogenous morphine system (hence “endorphin”) creates an organic painkiller. All you have to do to get a dose is convince your body that it’s in danger. Viewed this way, masochism is a kind of biohacking, a way of exploiting the body’s electrochemistry. Cowart is a longtime B.D.S.M. enthusiast, but they believe that “pain on purpose” is more than a bedroom kink—it’s a universal human experience. Eating spicy foods, getting a tattoo, taking a cold shower: all, for Cowart, are sly attempts to exchange distress for a blast of neurochemical bliss. “Once I started looking for the pattern,” they write, “I saw it everywhere.”
This acknowledgment of confirmation bias might cast doubt on Cowart’s claim that masochism is universal; in many of the activities that Cowart examines, pain is typically considered a means to an end, not an end in itself. At one point, Cowart gets permission to speak with participants in an ultramarathon—but then the organizer, upon learning that Cowart is writing a book on masochism, briefly revokes it. “Like many sport there is discomfort involved, but it is a cost of competition, not an objective,” the organizer explains. In the end, Cowart attends the event, and concludes that, for some runners, pain is an underlying goal; one contestant claims to look forward to “the slow accumulation of punishment.” I thought of Flaubert, who wrote, “I love my work with a love that is frenzied and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.” I don’t imagine I’m the only writer who has recognized herself in this confession: the rewards of a literary career come so unpredictably, and at such a steep cost, that it’s impossible not to wonder whether you are deriving a deranged pleasure from its more reliable vexations.
Cowart is a former ballet dancer who suffered from eating disorders and self-mutilation during adolescence, and they recall ballet as being both rewarding and abusive: “It was years spent cowering and starving, eternally at war with my poor, battered body.” Studies have found that it’s possible, over time, to build strong associations between pain and pleasure, suggesting that masochism can be learned. “Did ballet make me a masochist?” Cowart wonders. The book does not arrive at a tidy conclusion: pain, it turns out, is as wily and elusive as any other mental experience. Pangs that once produced pleasure won’t necessarily do so again, and the existence of safe words in B.D.S.M. testifies to how quickly desired pain can become undesirable. “I am endlessly drawn to the idea that if you can just get through to some nebulous other side, that pain can open up into wild euphoria,” Cowart writes. “Humans play this game all the time.” Cowart repeatedly refers to masochism as a “game,” but evidently it is one that is governed less by the predictable readings of an applause meter than by the whims of a roulette wheel.
Anna Dostoyevskaya, a writer and the second wife of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, once observed that her husband’s work never went so well as it did after he’d lost all their money playing roulette. Dostoyevsky’s novels are full of characters of this sort: gamblers who are more interested in losing than in winning, men who deliberately make fools of themselves when their reputations have become too pristine. In “Notes from Underground,” the narrator mocks the idea that humans seek only what is beneficial to them; a man, he insists, may “consciously, purposely, desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid—simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by any obligation to desire what is only rational.” Sometimes the absence of an advantage is the point. We suffer deliberately to prove that we are not machines.
In a 2004 paper, the economists Niklas Karlsson, George Loewenstein, and Jane McCafferty quote that passage to illustrate the kinds of motives long ignored in decision theory, game theory, and behavioral economics. Although these disciplines have moved beyond a fixation on mere utility or pleasure, and now explore how human behavior is influenced by moral considerations such as altruism and fairness, their practitioners, the economists argue, still have little to say about the kind of outcome Dostoyevsky’s narrator seeks. “People want to believe that they have some control over their behavior and hence their destiny, they want to feel as if they are more than the sum of nerve firings happening in obscure parts of their brain,” the authors write. They call this motivation the “desire for meaning,” and suggest that it warrants further exploration.
Paul Bloom’s new book, “The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning,” is an attempt to delve into this scientifically overlooked dimension of human behavior. Bloom acknowledges that pain often brings pleasure, but he doesn’t think that masochism alone can explain why people sometimes gravitate toward suffering. “A lot of the negative experiences we pursue don’t provide happiness or positive feelings in any simple sense—but we seek them out anyway,” he writes. People enlist in wars and decide to have children despite knowing the consequences; we willingly undertake extreme challenges, such as climbing mountains and writing books. Bloom, a developmental psychologist at Yale, calls himself a “motivational pluralist.” He believes that human flourishing depends on a host of different desires beyond mere hedonism: desires for justice, for recognition, for artistic achievement.
In many cases, meaningful pursuits are at odds with pleasure. People who have children generally experience less happiness than those who are childless but report that their lives are more meaningful. Polls of the happiest countries are often topped by wealthy nations with good social-support systems—Norway, Australia, Canada—but, in a Gallup survey that asked whether people believed their lives were meaningful, the top results were Sierra Leone, Togo, Senegal, Ecuador, Laos, Cuba, and Kuwait. G.D.P. is clearly correlated with happiness, but it may have an inverse relationship to meaning. Bloom concedes that religious belief might factor into these results, but he suspects the more likely explanation is that meaning results from struggle. It’s no surprise that many citizens of affluent countries find that their lives lack purpose, he maintains: “Some degree of misery and suffering is essential to a rich and meaningful life.”
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. The so-called Ikea effect suggests that we associate value with effort: people are often willing to pay more for items that require assembly. Finding creative ways to add friction to our lives is a sure path to making activities more meaningful, whether it’s cooking a meal from scratch or “gamifying” activities by adding gratuitous goals. Better yet, get your kicks from fiction: streaming platforms offer “virtually unlimited choice” when it comes to vicarious suffering, Bloom notes, and the guaranteed resolutions promise to satisfy our desire for meaning. Fiction is “safe,” he writes, “in that it allows for control of what kind of aversive experience one is going to get.”
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. Just as Cowart sees masochism as a form of biohacking, Bloom regards deliberately chosen discomfort as a way to “game the system,” exploiting our evolutionary hardwiring to induce more fulfilling experiences. At this point, one might think of another line in “Notes from Underground,” toward the end of the narrator’s rant about rationalists: “If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated—chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point!”
The vast majority of suffering that we experience in our lives is, of course, not within our control. And, as “Queen for a Day” illustrates, it’s these travails—the lost spouse, the sick child, the home destroyed by a fire—that we are most eager to see yield value. Is it possible to find meaning in such tragedies? Bloom, for his part, is skeptical: he believes that run-of-the-mill misfortunes are largely without benefit. Fasting can be meaningful, whereas starving because you don’t have money for food is simple misery. Or recall, for instance, the absurdity of Donald Rumsfeld’s argument that forcing Guantánamo prisoners to stand for hours during interrogation was not so bad because he himself had a standing desk. “Many of the features that make suffering so rewarding when it’s chosen . . . are absent when it is involuntary,” Bloom writes.
Bloom questions clinical studies that suggest that suffering makes people more resilient or altruistic. One such study found that thirteen per cent of the women who survived the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in 2007, were less anxious and depressed after the tragedy than they were before. But studies like this can rely too heavily on self-reporting and often lack control groups, Bloom points out. He doesn’t deny that some people find a sustaining purpose in tragedy. Throughout the book, he refers to “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl’s account of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps; despite the horrors that Frankl endured, he seems to have gone on to live “a rich life, replete with both meaning and pleasure,” Bloom writes. Frankl argued that those who suffer are spurred to help others because it gives meaning to their own pain. But Bloom believes that Frankl is an outlier whose case has been wrongly used to bolster the myth of redemptive suffering. “There is little actual evidence that sufferers are kinder than they would have been had they not suffered,” he writes.