It turns out that when you ask someone about love, they may feel compelled to tell you a story about heartbreak. When you read stories about success, you read about overcoming great adversity. Human beings seek experiences that elicit enjoyment or pleasure, whether those experiences be good or bad. It’s stimulation in the brain that carries meaning; that tells us we’re alive. The writer who faces the blank document may not find pleasure in that moment, but through a painstaking process of planting their butt and exposing themselves, they eventually flip the pain of starting into the pleasure of being read. The photographer who has chosen a new environment may have difficulty finding the right lighting, but through this trial he or she may capture something timelessly breathtaking. Of course there are simple pleasures with no prerequisite for any pain, like a dog looking up at you, its body shaking uncontrollably, begging for you to pet it. Or buying new shoes, although this kind of pleasure is fleeting and quickly demands replenishment.
Perhaps the most rewarding of them all are the ones that require discomfort, because now we’re emotionally invested and being challenged.
And yet, for most of our lives we numb pain and avoid it altogether. We avoid the pain of telling the truth, of looking people in the eyes, of facing ourselves—a strange painful pleasure in its own unique way. This, however, is simply part of human nature. We gravitate towards the positive experiences that promise it will happen again, and avoid the unpromising ones like a bad meal at a restaurant.
Plato once observed that all things are created by nature, chance, or art; the first two being the most great and beautiful, and the last being the most imperfect. But when you look at any kind of art—a book that changes the way you think, a painting that stirs emotions, or even the kind of customer service that is seemingly rare—it’s easy to only appreciate the end result, not the long trail of anxiety, fear, and effort that it necessitates. We gawk at newfound overnight successes but fail to appreciate or even acknowledge the decade of adversity prior.
How, then, do we learn to view pain as something temporary, something that actually functions as a profound source for pleasure? The Stoics believed that pain and pleasure, success and failure, life and death, were simply just part of human life, therefore they were neither good nor bad. What make our negative emotions so destructive aren’t the emotions themselves but the judgments that shape them. But how difficult this mindset is to keep when we’ve been cheated, lied to, undervalued or misunderstood! We react emotionally, all the while fueling our escape, when in fact we should be embracing this pain and transmuting it into something worthwhile—a lesson, a story, a piece of art. Look at anything you deeply admire, and you may see the connection: the creation was not made in the avoidance of pain but rather because of it.
If there is one underlying principle about human nature that deeply influences the way we lead our lives, it’s our innate desire for connection. To be understood and ultimately missed. Which is why stories about pleasure, or any of the synonyms associated with it, always contain elements of pain, frustration, or adversity. Hence, it’s vital in our careers and lives to understand that pain and pleasure are ephemeral but not meaningless. We get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
Sure, watching your house burn down is painful, and the hopelessness associated with such an event is justifiable. But it isn’t helpful. Running a marathon produces pains in the body, but crossing the finish line yields a feeling of ecstasy. It’s easy to spend our lives selling ourselves short and opting for the kind of pleasures that can be bought, however fleeting they may be. It’s easy to lie, to not give the advice that your friend needs to hear. But a life avoiding pain can inadvertently deny us from feeling any kind of memorable pleasure. In most cases the two need each other; they compliment one another. When you are vulnerable with someone, it may be painful to share what you’ve been hiding, but the potential for a deeper connection may ensue. When you write, dance, draw, sing, or create, you may be misunderstood or criticized, but the opportunity to find the right people who appreciate your work and are moved by it? Such pleasures are worth pursuing indeed.