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How Discomfort Can Increase Happiness

by Beth on October 9th, 2022

The fascinating connection between pain and pleasure in our brains can explain why too much pleasure may be bad for happiness, while experiencing some pain or discomfort may increase happiness.

In her book “Dopamine Nation” Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke discusses how pleasure and pain are processed in the same part of the brain. It’s like a see-saw; when you experience pain it tips to one side, pleasure the other. Your brain wants the see-saw to be in balance, so when one side goes down, your brain will work hard to try to tip it back to the opposite side.

If you eat a piece of cake, watch TV, or scroll through your phone you get a tip to the side of pleasure. Lembke explains that your brain will then put a lot of “pain gremlins” onto the other side. It takes time for the gremlins to jump off when the pleasure stops, so the balance leans to the side of pain before returning to equilibrium. This is what makes you want to eat another piece of cake, watch another episode, or keep scrolling.

If you continue to pile things on the pleasure side, your brain gets tired of loading gremlins on the pain side, so it moves the center of the see-saw to permanently tilt the balance toward pain. That’s why addicts need more and more to get the same effect. It may also explain why there is so much unhappiness today. We live in a world of overwhelming abundance with unprecedented access to pleasurable stimuli: drugs, food, shopping, texting, games, social media. In response, our brains are tipping toward pain.

The good news is that the balance can also be tipped the other way. When you have painful experiences, your brain will pile gremlins on the pleasure side of the balance. After you do something uncomfortable, like running in the freezing cold, you get the pleasurable feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

This means that doing unpleasant things can increase our happiness. Experiencing some discomfort can prevent our brains from having to continuously tilt the balance toward pain. The “pains” of living life, running errands on a rainy day, solving a hard problem at work, missing a connecting flight, cleaning the house, or having a difficult conversation, all help to keep things in balance.

We can reframe discomfort as a good thing. Experiencing more of it can create a brain that is tipped toward the side of pleasure. You can increase your happiness by renouncing some pleasure and doing some hard things. Try taking a break from social media, saying no to dessert, doing a HIIT workout, or turning off the TV. And when life throws challenges your way, remind yourself that it might actually be making you happier.

From → Emotions, Well-being

2 Comments
  1. Suzy Howell permalink

    This is an interesting observation. Still, having been in physical pain for six months now, I take this with a grain of salt and add the thought that physical pain as opposed to psychological pain is different. The pleasure/pain dichotomy works as a literary device, but perhaps ‘discomfort’ is a better word in the context of seeking a balance between dopamine and serotonin.

  2. Beth permalink

    I’m sorry that you’ve been experiencing physical pain, Suzy. You are right that the pain/pleasure connection in the brain that I am referring to has to do with emotions, not physical pain.

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