The other side of happiness
Social psychologist Brock Bastian explains how life’s painful and difficult experiences play a very important role in producing happiness
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
Brock Bastian is a Professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He’s trained as a social psychologist and his research broadly focuses on pain, happiness, and morality.
His book, The Other Side of Happiness, was published in January 2018.
Brock argues that a willingness to experience pain is crucial to our pursuit of genuine happiness, and that our efforts to escape unpleasantness or seek out only the positive in fact weaken us in managing life’s inevitable difficulties. Negative and painful experiences build meaning, purpose, resilience, and ultimately greater fulfilment in our lives.
Brock Bastian sat down for a Zoom chat about his work with Dr Andi Horvath.
Brock, you research in the area of pain, happiness and morality. Now, I get the pain and happiness connection, well I think I do, but how does morality connect into it?
Yes, well I suppose that assumes that perhaps there's a connection between everything I do, Andi. That's not necessarily true, so I've investigated many different things at different times and have brought them together in different ways. Certainly the connection between pain and happiness is close and one of the things that I've been interested in there is to understand what really produces wellbeing and happiness for people. In that way to perhaps overturn some assumptions we've got about that, which is that focusing on happiness and promoting happiness is actually a good way to achieve it. That actually in many ways it may be our painful and negative difficult experiences in life which play a very important role in producing happiness.
My work in ethics and morality has been somewhat distinct to that. However, more recently I am starting to bring those two worlds together, because I do think that to live a good life, to live a meaningful and purposeful life does mean to engage with the world ethically, to live, I suppose, with and through our values in connection with those in some ways. So really to live well we also need to do well and I think that there is a nice connection there that we're starting to explore more deeply.
There seems to be a happiness culture out there and a self-care culture. Some of it makes me cringe. Is happiness overrated or perhaps I'm just bitter and twisted?
Happiness itself isn't overrated. I think happiness is great, I like being happy as much as possible. But I think that what we don't realise is sometimes the psychology behind it. So sometimes - and what we know from psychology is that the human mind often works in fairly ironic ways and sometimes when you've focused on something too much, or try not to experience something, it actually produces the opposite. So a good example of this is the white bear experiment, or the pink elephant experiment, whichever one you want, where you ask people not to think about white bears or not to think about pink elephants. Ultimately, the people who are trying not to think about those things tend to think about them more. So we have this ironic internal process and I think we've misunderstood that.
So when we ask people to focus on happiness, or we promote the value of it, it also obviously suggests to them that they should avoid their negative experiences as much as possible, because they simply detract from the kind of life that they're wanting to live. But of course, as I just pointed out what the pink bear (sic) and white elephant (sic), trying to avoid negative experiences tends to be counterproductive, in more that we think we shouldn't have them and the more we try and avoid them, because we inevitably do have these experiences in life. It's just a part of living, we don't respond to them well when they do happen, we don't know what to do with them. We think they're detracting from our goal of being happy and ultimately, we become less happy because of it. So happiness is good but we need to understand carefully the psychology behind how we can achieve that and via what processes and also the traps that we can fall in trying to achieve it sometimes too or promote it.
What influences happiness? Surely culture must influence it, or is it something that's wired into our brains from evolution? Media and our environments must play a role, so how do we make sense of happiness?
Yeh , well as you said, all of those things do. Of course, happiness is ultimately - it depends how you understand it. So sometimes a more narrow definition is just how many positive feelings do we have from time to time. I think probably a better way of thinking about it is again as a broader notion, where it includes meaningful pursuits, engagement, those sorts of things, on top of obviously those positive feelings as well, but that broader definition I think works better for really understanding what happiness is. But again, we know that - I think that there is a bit of a mistaken idea that you can continually build your happiness and become, I suppose, ever happier and continue to in some sense grow it. I think that probably that's not possible and again, this is where our evolutionary history - and we do talk about happiness set points as well.
No matter what we do in life, we do tend to come back to somewhat of a resting baseline around happiness and this can be slightly different for different people. Part of that is because we adapt, we adapt to different circumstances, we adapt to different experiences. If you go and rent yourself a room in a five-star hotel it's going to make you incredibly happy for a little while, ultimately you'll eventually get used to it though and probably that initial happiness you experienced won't continue.
So we continually adapt and adjust and that does mean that we tend to return to baseline and that is an evolutionary process. It's part of how we've dealt with both positive environments, but more importantly I think the reason it's there is it's how we've dealt with bad and negative environments as well, because we also adapt to those too. So it's a complex picture really that really draws on and is influenced by all those things you just mentioned.
I'm going to quote you back to you, I think you've said this. “The other side of happiness is embracing a more fearless approach to living.” Unpack that for us.
As I explored more the value of some of our painful experiences - and again, much of my own research is actually just focused on the experience of physical pain, but really as an analogue to a range of difficult experiences in life. I think it's fair to say that it's very hard to really experience any happiness in life if we don't also have its opposite. That means sometimes leaning into, I suppose fearlessly in some way, those experiences which can seem difficult, challenging, hard, even painful. It's actually through that process that we achieve happiness. Two examples I often use, two things that people might say provide them with a sense of achievement and satisfaction and happiness, meaningful happiness, would be running marathons is one and maybe graduating from a course, a good one, a good example for the fact we're here at a university.
If you think about both of those, the very fact that people run marathons, that they train for marathons, that maybe they get sponsored for running a marathon, perhaps they feel a sense of achievement when other people congratulate them for running a marathon. All of those things are leveraged from the fact that marathons are painful. If they weren't painful, if they were just easy, straightforward, pleasant, like sitting on the couch watching television or having a massage or something like that - massages can be painful, by the way, but I mean a pleasant one - there'd be nothing in there, there'd be no point to it, it wouldn't be valuable. So we do seek out a lot of the things we actually get the most happiness from life, they do incorporate this other side and we just often miss it, we don't see it. The same thing with graduating from a course. If it wasn't for the possibility of failure, again, there'd be no sense of achievement, we wouldn't feel we actually had done anything of any great value, we wouldn't get a sense of satisfaction, all these things contribute to our happiness.
Being challenged, being challenged is incredibly important to our wellbeing and happiness, but of course you can't be challenged by pleasure alone. Pleasure's never been a very big challenge. It's always got to be something negative we're pushing against, something difficult, something hard, something painful. So ultimately I think we just have developed some what I've referred to as blind spots in this space, where we don't see the role of these negative experiences in fundamentally producing the kinds of experiences in life, the kinds of events in life that we actually really do draw a lot of happiness and enjoyment from. So I guess that's more or less my position on why we need to be able to lean into those sorts of experiences, to really experience happiness in life.
Of course, the other part of it is, as I said, we adapt and endless pleasure eventually becomes mundane and really quite unpleasant in itself. I think Aldous Huxley's book, Brave New World, kind of explored that idea of a dystopian future, where people were able to eradicate all their negative and painful experiences. The main character ended up going a little bit crazy because of it. So it's not a world that we actually want to live in when we stop to think about it. We do need those other side type experiences, where we know that they're actually important for our happiness. We just often forget it and we don't think about it clearly sometimes, I think.
Chronic pain, chronic physical pain often affects individuals emotionally as well, it really does lower one's ability to thrive and function and it's very up and down. How does your work give us insight into pain? I know from the scientific community pain is still quite an elusive area.
No, I think it is quite an elusive area, the reason being is a very big psychological - in fact if not entirely a psychological - component to the way we experience pain. That means that it's complex, like anything that occurs psychologically and it can be influenced by a range of factors. But I think when we're talking about chronic pain, we are talking about a somewhat different experience. Certainly my position on this is not to say that people with chronic pain should be glad and happy they have it, of course they're not and they shouldn't be, it's a terrible thing to have to experience endlessly. That's, I think, the point, there's no variation for people who do have chronic pain.
It is the variation, it's the ability to lean into something and then have a sense of relief from doing so that gives that sense of happiness. There's no relief when you have chronic pain and that's where it's quite different. Having said that, I do think - and certainly in messages and other feedback I've received from people who do suffer from chronic pain - when I do walk through what are some of the potential benefits, some of the upsides we might get from painful experiences, that does resonate for them. I suppose if you're going to manage something that's hard, that's difficult, that's even enduring, simply seeing it as bad, as undesirable, as detracting from your life and as having no value at all, is not a great way to manage it.
So if you can find a little wedge in there where you say okay, this is terrible but I can see some other things that are perhaps coming around to me. I wish I didn't have this, of course, but given that I have to endure it, perhaps taking a more nuanced and differentiated perspective on what I'm having to push through is actually a better way to manage it.
Brock, explain some of the experiments you actually do. How do you conduct studies in this area?
We use different methods for different research questions. So when it comes to understanding the value of pain, I have been using experimental methods in the labs, so actually getting people to experience pain in the lab. That might be getting people to put their hands into buckets of iced water for as long as they can, doing leg squats, even eating hot chillies. All of these are ways of inducing a painful experience, obviously one that people don't feel that they can't handle, but one which still elicits the kind of psychological experience we're interested in. As I said before, we've used these acute physically painful experiences, but we're also interested more broadly in a range of negative and difficult experiences that people have in life. That's been our approach there and then we can really observe in a very behavioural and experimental way how people respond to those sorts of experiences.
In other work, around understanding happiness norms and how they impact on people and how they play out for people in their own wellbeing and happiness. We often use surveys, we've used some studies, some experiments as well. In the surveys, we've run recently a large multinational survey covering about 40 different countries. In that sense we're able to look at cross-cultural differences in this as well as individual differences in it. We've also put people into rooms where we've plastered those rooms with the kinds of upbeat happiness-promoting messages you might get in some office spaces sometimes.
Watched people respond poorly to experiences of failure and setback in those rooms compared to more neutral rooms, showing again that sometimes pushing people to think that happiness is important means that they don't respond so well to instances of failure, which I think is a very important message when it comes to understanding how we might promote happiness in workplaces and even in schools. So really a range of methods and sometimes we also collect data on mobile phones from people across the day. We might ping them a short survey up to 10 times a day, or maybe we'll do just a short daily diary each day so we can actually pick up these sorts of experiences that people have on a day-to-day and moment-by-moment basis as well. So we use a range of methods and it really depends on the research question and what the best way to answer that is.
What surprised you most about some of this research?
Certainly initially I did set out to, I suppose, find this idea that maybe we were overvaluing happiness and that doing so was causing some problems. I guess I was surprised to see that it was quite so consistent and also across countries we find this as well. So certainly it seems that - and the way that we look at that is really more focusing on how comfortable people are with their negative experiences. Also measuring how important they think it is to remain happy. But we certainly find very consistently, I think one of the standout findings that really stood out for me was when we used a daily diary technique to look at the depressive symptoms that people experienced on a day-to-day basis.
But also the extent to which they felt a certain amount of social and societal pressure not to have these experiences, to remain happy and not to delve into this negative side of life. What we found was when we used a network analysis showing - I suppose that allows us to really see the centrality of a particular measure or construct, we actually found that this social pressure was very predictive of depression on the next day. It wasn't that feeling depressed led me to experience more of this social pressure, it was the other way around. So we had some nice evidence there for causality, but also the network analysis showed this was quite a central feature of people's depressive symptoms in our survey.
So the way I like to think about that is that in a sense that social and cultural valuing of happiness and the way that it impacts on depression was actually central, not peripheral, to people's network of depressive symptoms. In a sense it kind of brought for me, as a social psychologist, it meant I was quite, I suppose, interested to see how the social and cultural element to our experience was actually quite central, rather than peripheral.
So I'd say that was one in that particular domain. Of course, in the work around pain I was always interested just to, I suppose, see the various ways that this had positive outcomes and I think initially I was quite surprised to see that nobody had really spent a lot of time examining what are the upsides of negative and painful experiences directly. In fact most of the stuff that I could find was in religious writings, so I thought it was time to do a bit of scientific research on it.
Brock, what would you like to activate in society? I'm going to give you unlimited funding and staff.
Fantastic, right, well I suppose in this particular area there are two things that I think would be really valuable and important. Certainly one would be to start to build a greater focus on some of the broader contextual and in my mind underlying causes of the mental health crisis we're currently facing into. One of the things that I'm quite interested in is actually in an applied way is organisational culture. The reason for that is that I think that we know that the job stress is a very important predictor, in fact quite a significant predictor of the levels of depression and anxiety that we see in any given year.
So quite often we've developed this rather person-centred focus, or a medicalised focus on these issues and I think we really do need to start to develop a broader contextual, social, cultural way of thinking about why is it that so many people are experiencing mental health issues in any given year, what's behind the rise. So I would like to be able to really start to think about ways that we could look at those broader issues and start to address those and think about what we might do that might actually benefit people in that broader sense. But also I think related to that, as we move forward, certainly our sensitivity to ethics, ethical decision-making, how we treat each other, even how we treat other entities like the environment, animals, things like this, this is coming to the fore.
It's a really important area to understand well, because I think that we are starting to really see a lot of positive behaviour change and people are now becoming more sensitive to a range of social issues on the basis of an ethical framework. I think this is a really good thing, but also we're seeing some really deep ideological divides beginning to emerge, particularly in America, but it's starting to happen elsewhere as well. So understanding how to both use ethics to get people engaged in important social causes, but then also how to understand how to step away from the sorts of divides and problems that actually connecting to ideological positions can actually create, I think, is going to be really important moving forward. We're certainly again seeing that ethical considerations are coming to the fore, particularly for the younger generations.
We know from surveys that younger generations engage with organisations and business based on their ethical reputations as much as anything else these days. But at the same time, this focus can go wrong and it can lead to greater division and conflict. So understanding the psychology behind that and how to manage it well, I think, is going to be very important moving forward. Of course, all of that feeds into that wellbeing piece and also I think the more that people understand the importance of connecting with those ethical frameworks and understanding the role that living from your values has in producing wellbeing, I think we're going to also be able to look at a broader piece there on understanding what's missing perhaps and what might be contributing to the mental health crisis we're seeing, too.
That's a really salient point. Next time we pass by a bookshop say and we see a book with happiness in the title, what would you like us to think about?
Well, again I think that that whole self-help area has been very important. Of course, my book has happiness in the title as well, so I wouldn't encourage you to walk right past them, selfishly. I think it's great that people are interested in understanding these issues and trying to understand how to, I suppose, live lives that are more full and where they're able to actually manage their own wellbeing in ways too. I guess what I would simply caution is that if you're picking up a book on happiness because you want to set happiness up as a goal for your life and that you think that’s the reason, that's going to be the most important thing for you, then that's probably going to backfire.
If the book is telling you that simply thinking more positively, encouraging more positive feelings and focusing on that as a goal in and of itself and that that somehow is going to create value for you and will maintain your levels of happiness and wellbeing, then I think it's also probably not true. I think when we are looking at books on happiness or investigating our own wellbeing at all, I think we need to look past happiness as a goal. Really if the goal in life is simply to feel good, that to me seems a little bit thin on the ground. Maybe really and in fact actually the better way to achieve happiness is to see it as a by-product of doing something else that matters, that's meaningful, that's perhaps engaging in an ethical way in the world that we live in and making a difference. Volunteering our time, contributing, connecting with other people.
I think these are really purposeful and meaningful things and that might not always make us happy in the moment. Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it's costly, sometimes it asks a lot of us, but I think it ultimately will make us happy and it will be a by-product of focusing on those things. So I guess I would just simply say don't focus on happiness as a goal in and of itself, it won't work. Focus on other things that you think are actually going to make a difference and that are going to contribute to the world and to your own life in meaningful ways. Then you'll probably find along the way that you'll notice one day that you wake up and think actually I'm actually a little bit happier than I was.
Professor Brock Bastian, thank you and may your happiness be wholesome and full of pleasant relief.
Thank you, I appreciate that.
Thank you to Brock Bastian, Professor in the School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on April 22, 2021. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“Happiness itself isn’t overrated. I think happiness is great and I like being happy as much as possible, but sometimes what we don’t realise is the psychology behind it,” says Brock Bastian, Professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
“We know from psychology that the human mind often works in fairly ironic ways, so when you’ve focused on something too much, or try not to experience something, it actually produces the opposite. A good example is pink elephants, where you ask people not to think about pink elephants... (but then) they tend to think about them more,” he says.
Professor Bastian explains that many of us have a mistaken idea that we can continually build happiness and become, ever happier.
“No matter what we do in life, we do tend to come back to somewhat of a resting baseline around happiness and this can be slightly different for different people. If you go and rent yourself a room in a five-star hotel it’s going to make you incredibly happy for a little while, ultimately you’ll eventually get used to it though and probably that initial happiness you experienced won’t continue.
“I think it’s fair to say that it’s very hard to really experience any happiness in life if we don’t also have its opposite. That means sometimes leaning into, I suppose fearlessly in some way, those experiences which can seem difficult, challenging, hard, even painful. It’s actually through that process that we achieve happiness.
Professor Bastian says two examples that provide people with a sense of achievement, satisfaction and happiness – meaningful happiness – are running a marathon and graduating from a course
“So I guess I would just simply say don’t focus on happiness as a goal in and of itself, it won’t work,” he says.
“Focus on other things that you think are actually going to make a difference and that are going to contribute to the world and to your own life in meaningful ways. Then you’ll probably find along the way that you’ll notice one day that you wake up and think I’m actually a little bit happier than I was.”
Episode recorded: April 22, 2021.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images
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