Does suffering make us better people? Do we become better people? Are we kinder, stronger and more resilient? Is suffering a way to find meaning in our lives?
Given the suffering that so many people are going through these days, it would be great if they did. Around three-quarters of a million Americans have died of Covid, and those who loved them often didn’t get to say goodbye or hold a proper funeral. Millions lost their jobs and businesses. Millions had to have their lives halted or derail. People who live in isolation and hate one another have existed. Boredom, anxiety and fear are all common in the most fortunate.
This suffering is valued in many religions. This, among other things is what it’s said to do for us. C.S. Lewis worried that we get too complacent and proud in our happiness; suffering wakes us up: “God whispers to us in our pleasures … but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.” Some take this to extremes. William Henry Atkinson, the president of the American Dental Association, reportedly said, “I wish there were no such thing as anesthesia! I do not think men should be prevented from passing through what from passing through what God intended them to endure.”
I don’t think any modern-day psychologists would go this far, but some believe that great benefits can come from terrible experiences. Post-traumatic stress is something everyone has heard about. Growth. As Richard Tedeschi, one of the founders of the theory, puts it, after experiencing traumatic events, “People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life.”
This surely happens some of the time, but there’s reason to be skeptical that this is a common psychological process. Most studies in the area explore people’s perception of how they reacted to trauma; there is less evidence for actual concrete changes And a recent meta-analysis by Judith Mangelsdorf and her colleagues find that the same benefits said to occur after trauma also occur after major PositiveLife events can happen, even if people are not experiencing anything major, good or bad. Perhaps growth or the perception of it is something that happens over time. It’s possible that suffering doesn’t have much to do with it.
There is some positive news in psychological research. As George A. Bonanno discusses in his new book “The End of Trauma”, we are much better than we think we are at enduring traumatic experiences; resilience is the rule, not the exception. This experience will be mostly manageable. While there may not be a wave of communal growth after the collective suffering brought on by the pandemic, we won’t all get PTSD either.
You can’t go wrong. To use Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s term, we are Antifragile: “The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” Some degree of life suffering turns out to have modest positive effects. In one set of studies, subjects were given a list of thirty-seven negative life events—physical assault, death of a loved one, and so on—and tallied up how many they had experienced in their lives. People who were lucky enough to not have such experiences turned out to be less sensitive to pain and more likely to panic about stress situations than the average person. (Importantly, though, those people with high levels of negative experience also showed the same pattern—there seems to be a sweet spot of intermediate suffering where we do best.)
Similar effects can be seen for kindness. People who haven’t suffered much in their lives are less likely to agree with claims like “It’s important to take care of people who are vulnerable” and “When I see someone hurt or in need, I feel a powerful urge to take care of them,” and are less likely to donate to needy strangers.
There is an important relationship between meaning and suffering. People who claim that they live a meaningful life experience more worry, anxiety, and stress than people who report that it is happy. People who report having the greatest sense of meaning are those living in poor countries with difficult lives. Contrary to this, countries where people feel the best tend to have a lot of security and prosperity. The jobs that people say are most meaningful, such as being a medical professional or a member of the clergy, often involve dealing with other people’s pain. When asked to describe the most meaningful experiences of our lives, we tend to think about those on the extremes, very pleasant—and very painful. And we often choose pursuits that we know will test us—everything from training for a marathon to raising children—because we know at a gut level that these are the pursuits that matter.
Now, there is a profound difference between the struggles we choose—our children, our careers, our hobbies—and suffering which is unchosen and unwelcome. What we choose to suffer is what will give us the best chance for joy, meaning and personal growth. However, even unchosen pain can inspire change. Many people have fled unsatisfying careers to pursue more fulfilling, challenging pursuits.
There’s no getting around it: It would have been better if the pandemic had never happened. We can still find some solace in these things. Not all suffering is bad. Some sufferers may find greater self-reliance and compassion. For the fortunate, suffering can provide meaning and purpose.