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What We Gain From Our Pain

Author: Justin Mckibben

Is there a lot to gain from our pain? Traumatic experiences seem to be a way of engineering the kind of affinity, and it goes to show some of the power of pain. That power has been sought after and studied probably as long as civilization has existed to see how closely those who hurt together grow together, and if our pain can not only bond us to each other, but enrich the pleasure we have in life as well.

For centuries, societies have used pain as a way of creating deep bonds. Using religious rites and rites to adulthood are typical in tribes, there are also initiation rituals of fraternity houses and military branches, even summer camps and medical residencies will have initiations.

In life it is not uncommon to hear someone say that it’s the cloudy days that make the sun shine brighter, or that the hard times help us appreciate the good ones. Is there more to it? Is it possible that pain scientifically has the ability to inspire bonds between us, and to help us anchor in the sweeter side of life?

Brock Bastian’s Experiment

Social psychologist Brock Bastian has been studying the effects of pain on personal lives for the last five years. Pain, he’s found, seems to play a central role in a group experience in a way that a pleasurable or neutral bonding experience simply doesn’t. Bastian has said,

“It’s a part of everyday life and we often seek it out in a number of ways. We tend to overvalue pleasure, but pain is a central part of what it means to be human and what makes us happy.”

Recently Bastian and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales and the University of Queensland performed an experiment to determine whether the experience of pain itself was enough to create a group where none existed before.

First, the researchers split students into two groups:

  • Group 1

Forced to submerge their hands in ice water for as long as they could while trying to locate small balls at the bottom of the basin and place them in a submerged container

  • Group 2

Perform the same task, but instead of ice their hands would be in room-temperature water for a minute and a half. During the experiment, everyone could see the other members of the group.

Next, Group 1 (ice water group) would have do a wall squat (back against the wall, knees bent at a right angle—a painful position to maintain for an extended period)

Group 2 (room-temperature water group) would be asked to balance on one foot, with the option to hold onto something or switch feet any time they wanted.

At the end of the study each individual was asked how much pain they had experienced, and how they felt about her fellow study participants. The students who had endured the icy water and wall squats in Group 1 had not only felt more pain, but had felt a stronger bond with the others in their group.

Group 1 felt that the experiment had created more solidarity and unity with each other and more loyalty to one another. Those who had participated in the non-painful version of the experiment felt no such thing. The common peril made them feel bonded.

Bastian’s Conclusion

Bastian conducted a few other studies, changing a few variables to check and see if alternative circumstances would factor in. Across the board, with each change the results held conclusive to the original. Those who endured pain together stayed more loyal than those who did not.

Bastian concluded that the loyalty that we experience after feeling pain goes beyond any need to reconcile conflict or to signal commitment.

“When you go through and experience pain with complete strangers, that shared experience bring you together in a way that is formative,”

As far as a bonding aspect, it only makes sense when you think of this in relation to those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, because the idea of many fellowships in recovery is based off working with others who suffer as we do. So in essence, this experiment stands behind the idea that we relate and bond easier with those we share the same kind of pain with.

Pain Makes People Present

According to the data theis kind of experiment gives us, pain makes us focus to the exclusion of everything else in a way that no other experience quite does. Pains attention-centric nature has been recognized as one of its central characteristics, in both a physical and emotional sense. It was the ability to yank us out of a daydream or a conversation to focus directly on what is happening in the present moment.

Painful experiences are better encoded in our memories. As such pain serves as a point of contrast against which everything else. People around us or the things we experience become more attractive and pleasant after experiencing pain. In one study Bastian found that people who’d submerged their hand in ice water subsequently enjoyed a chocolate biscuit significantly more than those who hadn’t.

The experience of pain focusses our attention—first on the pain, and then, in a newly heightened state of awareness, on all that follows, including people.

As Bastian puts it,

“Pain is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness: it makes us suddenly aware of everything in the environment. It brutally draws us into a virtual sensory awareness of the world, much like meditation.”

The real bonding power of pain may be in the pleasure we feel so acutely in the aftermath.

When we are experiencing great pain, we are drawn out of the world of our own anxiety and imagination and into the moment. What this can do for us is set a tone for how we appreciate what is around us. A shared pain makes us grow together through our understanding of one another and our appreciation for that recognizable struggle.

From our pain, we gain experience through which we can relate and connect with others on a different and unique level. We gain the awareness and presence to appreciate the beautiful things that are left when the pain subsides, and if we are smart we learn from it all.

Next time the truth hurts, let it. Maybe it will show you what you have to be happy about, or it will let you help someone else who hurts.

Some pain is necessary to grow, but other times pain can be us destroying ourselves thoughtlessly. Sometimes we have to stop hurting ourselves, especially since we often hurt everyone around us. Some say pain is a part of life, but suffering is optional. If you or someone you love is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135. We want to help. You are not alone.

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