The Uses of Adversity: Why a Little Suffering is Good for You

We spend most of our lives trying to avoid the bad stuff and get the good stuff. This is the core human motivation–more beer and nachos, less taxes and road construction. Yet for thousands of years many religious and spiritual practices have promoted some kind of self-inflicted suffering as a path to happiness. Were they nuts? Fasting was a common practice back when there was no food! If you ask me, they had it made. Giving up a bowl of rice is easy compared to giving up some of Chili’s baby-back ribs. Of course, it seems ludicrous to our modern sensibility to promote the idea of self-mortification, wearing sackcloth and ashes, giving ourselves (or our kids) whippings as penance (as fun as it sounds). But according to the ancient Stoic philosophy, there are real practical reasons for encouraging a little bit of suffering, a dose of deprivation, and a hint of hard times. Does that mean we should wish for suffering? Here’s what the Stoic’s say:

I’ve always had this inkling that a little bit of suffering was good for me. I’ve experimented with fasting, tried out “buy nothing new” vows and DRY-anuary, and I’m a public school teacher. My wife and I both joined the Peace Corps with this desire to challenge ourselves, to live more like the rest of the world for a bit (as long as we got driven around in a Land Cruiser). In fact, many of us inflict suffering on ourselves all the time. Why else do people climb mountains, run marathons, do hot yoga, and have children? We live in a world where we can pretty much get anything we want, yet people still pay for a gym membership.

Furthermore, we can all point to those strange instances of suffering in our lives that have lead to growth and transformation. This has led some philosophers to argue that you cannot find happiness without suffering. The Buddha built his entire philosophy around suffering and the fact that everybody faces sickness, old age, and death. But with so much suffering out there, is it really necessary to self-inflict?

Philosopher William Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, gives three reasons for why a little bit of self-inflicted suffering promotes long-term happiness.

FIRST, by suffering in small ways now, “we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future.” He equates small acts of suffering to a vaccine that will make us immune to larger suffering later. By skipping a meal or two and exploring what it is like to be really hungry, we develop an immunity to future mishaps and America’s inevitable Armageddon.

SECOND, mild adversity builds confidence and grows willpower. When you can go without coffee for a day, or beer for thirty days, or sleep without a pillow for a night, you feel a little more prepared to take on other challenges. It increases willpower for other endeavors. This is echoed in Baumeister and Tierney’s great book, Willpower: Rediscover the Greatest Human Strength, which covers current willpower research. It turns out you can increase your overall willpower through simple practices such as using your non-dominant hand for a day or correcting your posture for a week. I found that fasting has had remarkable benefits in regards to building resilience, breaking down conditioned beliefs about what my body needs, and avoiding staff pot-lucks. It’s a strange confidence booster. And it’s cheaper than a gym membership.

THIRD, a little suffering goes a long way in helping us appreciate what we have. We all know the feeling of coming home after a particularly difficult trip at an awful hotel (God forbid, a lumpy mattress) with a renewed appreciation for the comforts of our home. I wish I could have permanently maintained the awe I had, upon returning from the Peace Corps, for paved roads, stocked grocery stores, hot showers, washing machines, and Taco Bell. Now I take Taco Bell for granted.

FINALLY, THE KIDS: It is worthwhile to put the kids through mild forms of suffering, whether it’s a trip to the nursing home, a “boring” classical music concert, or a day of running errands. We don’t do our kids any favors by instilling in them the belief that life is about only doing what they want all the time. If we set up our kids lives so they are filled with constant pleasure, our kids are going to be greatly disappointed when they become normal adults with boring jobs and acid re-flux.

In our house, we believe greatly in detoxing, both ourselves and our kids. After a particularly long weekend with grandparents, where they are given the non-stop trifecta of treats, TV, and fast food, we’ll have a few days of soup, salad, and TV-free evenings. They complain, of course. So do I. I want pizza and action films every night. But after a day or two, we all return from our gremlin state.

Ideas for useful family suffering:

  • Volunteering. Helping others is the universal tool for stepping outside ourselves.
  • Have a rice dinner night or a “raw” dinner night (fruit, veggies, and nuts). It’s a great way to feel connected to what most the world has for supper and not have to cook.
  • Media blackouts are a great form of useful suffering.
  • Giveaways. Kids are actually happier and more creative with less stuff around them. But they don’t know this until they get rid of some of it. Adults are the same.
  • Family jobs and errands. A little suffering was built-in back when kids used to have to get up and collect the eggs and milk the cows. You’re not a bad parent for making kids clean the toilets. (Why else do we have children?)

For adults, a little occasional suffering can come in the form of a wine-free weekend, a pillow-less night, a 12-hour fast (talk to a doctor first; with the rise of eating disorders, fasting is not right for everyone), an early morning yoga session, a bike-to-work pledge, or having another kid. One trick is to look for things you are most attached to (the morning cup of coffee or the beer with dinner) and try one day without it. Watch how it makes you feel. Try doing it without telling anyone. This removes the ego from the equation.

Of course, not all suffering is necessary. This winter, I’m questioning why I continue to choose to live in Minnesota. It’s also okay to remove forms of suffering.

Here’s a simple activity that helps kids think about suffering.

Or check out this activity, still in its developmental stages. It helps older kids recognize the cycles of suffering they are trapped in: The Wheel of Suffering Contemplation.

Finally, if you missed the first post on Stoicism, it’s here.

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 Tall Trees Grow Deep is about sharing resources that inspire mindfulness, contemplation, creativity, compassion, and AWEsomeness in our young people. Explore our free resourcesSubscribe to stay connected (and get our e-book of printable classroom activities). Follow us on Twitter. And share.

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4 Comments

  1. What a beautiful article you have writen, I liked it because I am going trough a little suffering right now, which I am sure will make me grow and get stronger, thank you so much, and excuse my english!

    Like

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