No one likes suffering. We try to get rid of any kind of pain and suffering at every turn. An entire industry sprang up around reducing the pain associated with dental and medical procedures. We have pain-free options for delivering babies. Everyone tries to dive into something new and avoid the pain after a heartbreak.
It would stand to reason, then, that suffering is universally a bad concept.
But what if that’s not true?
Why Suffering Even Exists
To understand the beauty of suffering, you first need to understand why pain even exists. It’s a warning sign of potential danger. Pain becomes a memory to avoid facing future danger.
Think of a caveman and a fire. He touched the fire previously and got hurt. Now when he encounters the fire, he won’t touch it.
This is how we evolved, but in modern times, the “suffering” we feel is often not physical. It’s often mental processes we want to skip but shouldn’t skip. A good example is putting in work. When we were young, studying and doing homework could be classified as “suffering.” We’d rather have fun and be outside playing. But if you skip studying, you don’t learn anything, and have bad results.
The same applies in adulthood. Working hard can seem like “suffering” for some people. If people go with their instinct and try to get rid of this “suffering” by slacking at work, they’ll probably work slow, have bad performance and may eventually get fired.
Suffering Is Not the Opposite of Joy
This is what people often miss: “failure” and “success” are not necessarily opposites. If anything, they’re cousins or even siblings.
There’s a close correlation between pain and pleasure, or failure and success. After intense physical exertion in the process of running, runners experience a sense of euphoria that has been linked to the production of opioids, a neurochemical that is also released in response to pain. This is called “Runner’s High”.
If you’re not so much a runner, think of it like this: what if you want to be a great singer? This might not be a goal for everyone, but substitute your own goal in if you would like.
To be a great singer, you have to put in work. Sing every day. Train your breathing. Watch other singers and analyze their style. Do gigs. Keep your voice healthy. All of that work could be seen as “suffering.”
The opposite is much easier: hang out with friends, go to movies, take naps, essentially don’t do much. Without the suffering, then, you can’t get the joy of being a great singer.
Can You Reduce Suffering?
No. It’s a natural part of the human experience. You can reduce the amplification of pain within the suffering by focusing less on yourself, though.
The Dalai Lama has a great quote,
“As long as you are too focused on your self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will experience suffering.”
Removing the self-importance is an important step. Realize that everyone suffers. Athletes train to get better. Singers sing and get booed at gigs. Entrepreneurs lose money and think it’s over before they really have a successful business.
Stephen King, one of the most successful authors of all-time, had his first novel, Carrie, rejected 30 times before it was published. It was a similar number of rejections for J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, which may be the most successful book and film series of all-time.
All these people before they experienced the joy and success, they suffered.
Find Joy in Suffering
Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that only 50 percent of our happiness is determined by uncontrollable factors like our genes or temperament. The other half is determined by a combination of our circumstances, our attitudes and actions which we have control over.
Celebrate every small amount of joy. You are going to fail. You’re going to suffer. Take a small amount of joy in those moments. Understand they are learning experiences. You will grow from them.
Very few people marry their first love; many go through heartbreaks. Very few people see their first professional endeavor be a total success; many scrap and fail before they find some success.
Find a way to track your progress and to set and celebrate small benchmarks. You may also want to conduct a weekly review to assess where you are and celebrate all of the small wins of the week.
Tracking your progress is also a great way to find and mitigate triggers and hindrances that impede your progress.
The point is, you are making progress. Even if it feels like suffering, you can see that it’s leading you to joy.
Suffering Is Beautiful
When you start going to a gym, you may struggle to lift 50, 60 pounds. After a few months, you might be lifting 150, 175. After a year, it might be over 200.
All of that is a struggle and suffering. You are putting your body through something. But it’s also beautiful. You are gaining strength and becoming more fit.
Failure is hard, but it’s a necessary element of life. Find beauty in those moments because you are growing.