Touché-ing the Void

How can we live only to die?


The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Paul Bloom; Ecco, 304 pp., $27.99

On the title page of Paul Bloom’s new book, a thumbnail figure climbs toward the top right corner, pushing an enormous boulder that threatens to crush him. This is Sisyphus, the ancient Greek personification of suffering, condemned to roll his rock in endless repetition—and the paradoxical hero of Bloom’s The Sweet Spot. Bloom has crafted a motivational book for those who generally hate motivational books. Its appeal? The Sweet Spot deals head-on with the most serious of philosophical questions: How can humans live a meaningful life not only in the face of suffering but also by virtue of it? At least in America, Bloom suggests, we are living through a crisis in meaning, one that is only exacerbated by our attempts to make life as enjoyable and painless as possible. In The Sweet Spot, Bloom counsels another route by observing that suffering has untold virtues.

Of course, there will always be readers who reject the ubiquity and uses of suffering, who concentrate solely on the pleasure that life can occasionally afford. In a word, hedonists. But Bloom, a professor emeritus at Yale and a member of the psychology faculty at the University of Toronto, dispatches unreflective pleasure-seeking at the outset, writing, “I find psychological hedonism implausible. I agree that we often seek out pleasure for its own sake, that we often scratch where it itches. But this isn’t our sole motivation.” Instead, well-adjusted human beings are complex psychological organisms with various drives that are oftentimes “at war with hedonism.” Enter the search for Bloom’s “sweet spot”—the right amount of the right kind of suffering to yield a good life.

Life is suffering, as the Buddhists say, but “the capacity to take pleasure in suffering,” Bloom writes, “is part of human nature.” Those of us who intentionally scald our mouths with spicy food, shovel snow in subfreezing weather just for the joy of warming up, engage in certain types of consensual sadistic or masochistic sexual behaviors, or subject ourselves to Swedish massage (Bloom doesn’t mention this one, but it is fun because it is not so fun at all) know something of the concept of “benign masochism.” Bloom, however, explains what psychological mechanisms might be at play in our longing for pain—whether it be a signal to others of our fitness, a way to heighten future pleasure, or the desire to sharpen or focus the mind.

Bloom then turns his attention to how “our unique powers of imagination give us certain pleasures, especially masochistic and aversive ones.” Why do human beings have an appetite for scenes of violence, horror, and cruelty? The question is a good one that philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. In the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote of an “unaccountable pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy.” Bloom employs the most recent psychological studies to account for the unaccountable, positing a number of plausible reasons why humans might relish what he terms “the imagined negative.” This pleasure may stem from “our interest in obstacles reflecting what interests us most in the real world,” or from a “form of imaginative play, allowing us to explore, in a safe way, dangerous and difficult situations.” The most convincing of Bloom’s assertions is that the draw of the imagined negative turns on our fascination with morality and that stories of moral triumph always involve something reprehensible that must be overcome.

At first, Bloom’s book reads like a work of popular psychology rather than a serious existential investigation. But then he reaches his underlying message, that suffering can be a choice we make to enrich our lives. He is at his most astute in the exploration of the relationship between value and effort, in the way that struggle is inextricably tied to our sense of meaning. His treatment of the subject sheds light on the difference between meaningful (and extremely difficult) work and mere drudgery. “Some jobs, though,” he writes, are relatively bullshit-free. Some are associated with meaning. In one survey, more than two million people were asked what they do and then asked about how much meaning they have in their life.

It turns out the most meaningful job is being a member of the clergy. This is followed by serving in the military, being a social worker, and working in a library. This is an intriguing list. All of these jobs involve a lot of personal engagement and some amount of difficulty. The pay isn’t great, and they are not very high status.

This is deeply counterintuitive in a culture that is obsessed with getting rich quick and living comfortably. You will have to read The Sweet Spot to understand why this obsession is so misguided.

Before the pandemic, when I taught my students about Sisyphus’s suffering, the lesson elicited awkward giggles and blank stares. They just didn’t understand how suffering might matter. I asked them how they could lead lives of lasting significance, given that their efforts would eventually be rolled over by an indifferent world. How can we live only to suffer and die? How should we take up suffering? Today, students don’t laugh at these questions. They stare at me like a class of eyewitnesses. Lately, many of them have experienced suffering in the form of physical and emotional pain, boredom, and continual frustration. Bloom speaks directly to such a reader and suggests that one’s orientation to suffering, rather than its total mitigation, is central to a fulfilling life. Many of the most valuable events in life—falling in love, getting married, having kids, being moral—are at certain points excruciatingly difficult or rather simply excruciating. And this, Bloom contends, for better and for worse, is simply our lot if we hope to live meaningfully.

Perhaps you want to be free of suffering. Perhaps you often desire the wrong things. I certainly do. Bloom’s modest yet compelling book echoes a sentiment expressed by American novelist David Foster Wallace: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty unsexy ways, every day.” In other words, one is free to take up suffering, to own it, and to make it worthwhile. It is only when Sisyphus can own up to his boulder, claim it entirely, that, as Albert Camus once said, we might imagine him as truly happy. I am grateful to Bloom for explaining, once again, why it isn’t so bad to be long suffering.


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John Kaag is author of Hiking with Nietzsche. His new book, American Bloods: The Untamed Dynasty That Shaped a Nation, will be published in May.


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