Can suffering be a source of meaning?
Yes, suffering can be meaningful in at least six ways:
- Suffering hardens the soul; it builds character. This why Nietzsche wrote, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”1 Mental fortitude is more meaningful than pamperedness,2 which is also the basis of post-traumatic growth (positive personal change after a traumatic event).3
- Suffering makes for magnificent stories; it inspires people. This is why the hero archetype is lastingly popular all over the world. Overcoming adversity is more meaningful than achieving without obstacles or winning without sacrifices.
- Suffering gives an impetus to learning; it breeds wisdom. This is why failure is so glorified these days. Failure is more meaningful than easy success.
- Suffering enhances subsequent pleasure; it enriches life. This is why men seek challenge and why women crave drama. Struggle is more meaningful than total comfort, and comfort feels better after a phase of discomfort.
- Suffering holds a dark glow of deepness; it exudes profundity. This is why so much great art and all religions build on it. Pain and death are more meaningful than fun and amusement because they appear as more profound.4
- Suffering refines one’s sense of compassion; it strengthens solidarity. This is why suffering together fortifies social bonds within tribes, teams, families, and relationships. Sympathy, gratitude, and deep connection depend on this vital element of the human condition.
What good could there be in the world if the was no suffering? Fulfillment in life almost seems impossible unless there is some hardship to overcome. To find meaning in suffering is indeed a heroic attitude, but does it not undermine our utilitarian understanding of morality and moral progress?
Is utilitarianism shallow and shortsighted?
Utilitarianism posits that good is what maximizes well-being. Usually, we maximize well-being by increasing happiness and decreasing suffering. But if we define happiness as pleasure plus meaning and if meaning can come from suffering, then the easy dichotomy between happiness and suffering breaks down:
- Utilitarianism: good = ↑ well-being
- Usual understanding: ↑ well-being = ↑ happiness + ↓ suffering ⇒ suffering = bad
- Problem: (happiness = pleasure + meaning) & (meaning ∩ suffering ≠ ∅)5 ⇒ suffering ≠ bad
However, the overlap of meaning and misery does not contradict the goal of maximum well-being. It only means that psychological well-being is more complex than “pleasure and joy are good; pain and suffering are bad.” For example, when we work out hard in the gym, pain is good because it signals effort, promises muscle growth, and releases endorphins. Similarly, if suffering can give us insight, character, an inspiring story, enhanced pleasure, stronger social connections, or any sense of meaning, then suffering cannot be categorically bad.
Therefore, utilitarianism must maximize well-being by increasing happiness and decreasing not suffering, but meaningless suffering. What are some forms of meaningless suffering? I can think of three:
- Imposed suffering. Suffering that is self-imposed (freely chosen) affects happiness differently than suffering resulting from bondage or tyranny. This is why free, actively fighting soldiers experience war as meaningful, whereas it severely impairs the well-being of oppressed, passively suffering civilians.
- Hopeless suffering. Suffering that is completely detached from any hope that things will get better in the future is not meaningful if it breaks the will to improve things and drifts into chronic depression. The point at which suffering turns from stimulating challenge into blank despair depends, of course, on the strength of one’s social support and mental immune system (one’s personal breaking point).
- Pointless suffering. Suffering that never strengthens one’s character,6 never transitions into joy or a sense of belonging, and never gets translated into a heroic story can only negatively affect happiness. Chronic pain and ostracism are striking examples here, especially if they make people grim and morose, their faces careworn and ugly, their souls feckless and bleak.
In conclusion, utilitarians should prevent and counteract suffering when nothing good can be expected to come from it (pointless), when it chronically weakens the will (hopeless), and when it results from tyrannical malice (imposed). Other than that, suffering can be an important source of meaning, and it must be weighed as such against its negative aspects when evaluating the total impact on happiness and psychological well-being.
- How to Maximize Happiness in Society
- On Goodness, Happiness, and Meaning in Life
- Where Does Meaning Come From?
- Is Religion a Vital Source of Meaning?
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 1889, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, §8
- Consider, however, that the very notion of character and the reappraisal of suffering (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) are coping mechanisms. Is coping the ideal way of life or would thriving be better? Is stoicism a great philosophy, or is it merely a useful philosophy when life is not great?
- On the other hand, some studies suggest that post-traumatic growth is just a story people tell themselves to feel better and to prevent additional psychological damage; it’s a coping mechanism, a motivated illusion, more than actual personal improvement (see Frazier et al., 2009; McFarland et al., 2000). Moreover, the illusion of growth (“it didn’t kill me, so I’m stronger now”) can even worsen symptoms of post-traumatic stress (see Blix et al., 2016; Engelhard et al., 2014).
- One reason for this could be the Anna Karenina principle.
- “A∩B” denotes intersection, i.e., objects belonging to set A and set B. “≠ ∅” means that the intersection is not an empty set, i.e., that set A and set B (meaning and suffering) overlap.
- Consider also the law of diminishing returns: even if suffering strengthens the character, more suffering is not always better for personal growth.