Happiness and Suffering and the Avoidance of Pain

We try to avoid pain and discomfort. It makes sense – those are often warnings that something is unhealthy or unsafe so this instinct has helped keep humans and animals alive for a very long time.  It’s why we yank our hand away from a hot stove and throw out that funky smelling raw chicken. But what about when you procrastinate working on your thesis or avoid parties where you don’t know a lot of people? Avoiding discomfort there doesn’t seem to keep us safe and healthy; in fact, it seems to detract from our long-term happiness.  What gives?

Avoiding pain and discomfort isn’t always a good idea. Since people usually have a natural tendency to avoid things that will actually hurt or kill them (though for very real biological reasons adults tend to be better at this than adolescents or children), I far more often talk with clients about turning toward discomfort rather than turning away. This discomfort is typically secondary anxiety – anxiety about feeling some other emotion. You avoid asking someone out because you’re anxious they’ll reject you and you’ll feel shame, sadness, embarrassment. You dread telling the kids you’re getting a divorce because you’re afraid they’ll be angry and devastated and you’ll feel grief, guilt, sadness. You postpone getting that mole checked out because you’re afraid it’s cancer and you’ll feel fear, hopelessness, grief.

Typically, turning away from this emotional discomfort either robs you of potentially wonderful opportunities or worsens the situation. And what we usually find when we finally turn toward it is that either the worst case scenario doesn’t happen or it happens and we can handle it. Next time you’re avoiding “feeling bad” in some way, take a deep breath, turn toward it, and know that by feeling this pain you’re avoiding suffering.