As humans, it is in our nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is the reason why we always strive to find and achieve happiness in our life. Although being happy seems to be the ultimate goal of everyone, there’s a truth to live that it only becomes more elusive the more we look for it.
As mentioned, humans are hedonists by nature. We choose to take the path of least resistance; the one that will maximize pleasure and minimize pain. To do this, we spend money on things we don’t need. We idolize careers where we can make money while sitting on a beach. We avoid situations that we’re afraid of, even if that risk comes with known rewards.
We do all of these things under the false assumption that pleasure and fulfillment are the same things. Under that lie, we believe the pursuit of pleasure will lead to a life of meaning. Unfortunately, that perspective neglects the true nature of life, including the pain we go through.
While fulfillment and pain sound like complete opposites, this isn’t the case for two main reasons. First, suffering doesn’t need to be a bad thing and can lead to greater rewards than pleasure alone.
Second, the contrast between moments of pleasure and pain increases your aptitude for true joy and gratitude, which are far more valuable over the long term.
Suffering Isn’t the End—It’s a Beginning
It’s only natural to think of suffering only as negative. When we see someone else in pain, we want to do everything we can to help them. If we could take the pain away, we would do it in a heartbeat. The same goes for us. Along with feeling sensitive to our own pain and hurt, we have the added detriment of discomfort. No one likes to be uncomfortable, and there are few things more uncomfortable than suffering. We often don’t know how to act, how to feel, and how to fix things.
You can see in these two perspectives that we are so caught up in the solution that we fail to realize what’s happening at the moment. Truly, there are many benefits that can come from suffering. You can see that in the stories we read and the songs we sing. In them, there’s usually the main protagonist that grew up being bullied and weak. Over time, however, they gain confidence and stand up, filling their role as the hero of the story. These stories are gratifying because we get to see the character undergo a transformation. Had they been strong from the beginning, they would be static character that’s difficult to empathize with.
Of course, these are more than just stories – they are true to life. Often the people we look up to had to endure suffering to get to where they ended up. As the old adage goes, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and people who choose to move forward from their pain will find greater mental strength than those who live a painless existence.
Imagine this: you come home from a long day at work. The phone was ringing non-stop, there were a host of angry customers, and all you feel is burned out. Then you eye a chocolate bar on the table and start eating it. Somehow, it tastes better than you remembered, and it’s enough to forget about the terrible day you had and just live in the moment.
This serves as an example of the contrast between pain and joy, and how one can enhance the other. Having a terrible day only makes the chocolate more satisfying in the end, and this applies to much larger things in life as well, such as if you worked a minimum wage job and saved up for years to buy the car you wanted.
There’s a far greater gratification that comes from earning something over being handed something. While we can appreciate the things we’re given (and give ourselves), knowing that our efforts finally paid off after what we’ve endured brings us that much more joy.
There’s another facet of this issue to examine as well – there is a great irony in pursuing happiness. We hear all the time about how our lives are about doing what makes us happy. This is even written in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Unfortunately, there’s something about forcing happiness that makes it that much harder to achieve. The main issue is that happiness is not something you do – it’s something you feel. And we feel the most joy when we’re content with what we have, not when we’re actively seeking out more.
When we choose to seek out more, more is never enough. As an example, you might have the latest laptop, smartwatch, and phone, but a few months will go by and they’ll be replaced with the next greatest model. If you spend all your time waiting for the next launch, you’ll never have any time to actually enjoy and get to know the technology you bought.
Then, before you know it, you’ll have missed the point of having that technology in the first place. You wouldn’t have used it to call your loved ones or post an inspirational story on social media or reach your fitness goals. Instead, it just sat there until you were on to the next thing.
Knowing all this, leads to the critical question: “What’s the alternative?” If happiness is not the end goal of life, and if hedonism isn’t the answer, then what is?
The problem with answering this question, of course, is that it neglects that people are individuals. What one person finds fulfillment in will not be the same for another. One person may find fulfillment in the work they do. Others might find fulfillment in their contributions to the community. Others might find fulfillment in sharing their unique voice with the world.
However, what all these people have in common is that they don’t belong to the rampant materialism that exists in much of the world today. They don’t live life with the leading question of “What can I get?” They don’t chase the endless void that comes from pursuing happiness.
Instead, they reach for a better future while choosing to be grateful for each moment, whether it brings pain or pleasure. They understand that there’s more to life than simply being happy. They live a purpose-driven life that leads to lasting satisfaction over passing pleasure. And, ironically, they are the ones who are happiest of all.