Saturday, September 13, 2008

It Makes You Stronger

Mark Vernon gave a talk on the role of suffering in contributing to well-being.

It is common to equate wellbeing with happiness. However, I prefer to think of wellbeing as something more subtle and expansive than our word happiness can capture. It has to do not only with living a life, but with living it well – well-being.

Friedrich Nietzsche highlighted a related insight about suffering and wellbeing. He noted that times of hardship can teach people certain things and deepen their emotional lives; that is, they can improve their overall wellbeing. He put this rather well, when he pointed out that pain can be a great source of wisdom. ‘There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure,’ he wrote.

I commented there that suffering can contribute to well-being in that it can be the one step back that motivates you to take two steps forward. Many people have been driven by suffering to improve their lives in ways that may not have happened if they had just been able to continue on their "happy" way.

Mark also took issue with so-called positive psychology.

Positive psychology has little discussion of the role of pain and suffering in life, let alone exploring whether it might be part of a good life. When the question of pain does appear, the response might be summed up as: ‘Positive emotions undo negative emotions’.

I suspect that the inability of positive psychology to ask questions about suffering with much sophistication is due to the discipline’s implicit hedonism. By this I mean that it is tied to a philosophy of life in which pleasure is the key measure of wellbeing.

I certainly agree. Elsewhere in the article he mentioned Victor Frankl's suffering in the concentration camps. There were guards at those camps who got pleasure and a sense of well-being from inflicting that suffering;does that make their actions acceptable from the point of view of positive psychology? I see another weakness, in that the minimization of suffering can lead to a complacency which stifles the self-improvement I mentioned.

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