What You Need to Know about Suffering to Be Happy

Series: The Concept of Happiness

In the first article in this series, I explained the fundamental nature of happiness, which I learned from Ayn Rand.

Elaborating on this concept, she wrote:


In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death.”

–Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics”

Suffering is characterized by ongoing pain or distress. It is a state of negative affect that you return to, despite short-term joy or relief. If you want to be happy, you need to understand suffering and how it can be mitigated.

After all, you can easily be thrust into a state of suffering by illness or injury or the loss of a loved one or some other calamity. This state can last for a significant amount of time. For example, a grieving widow may be cheered up by a phone call, and even laugh. But after she hangs up, she will see another reminder of her husband, and the pain of her loss will return. This suffering will continue until she has come to terms with his death. Similarly, if you are in chronic pain due to illness or injury, you may get your mind off it for a while, but it will likely intrude again, unless or until you find a way to address the underlying cause.

Though you may find yourself suffering through no fault of your own, you should not view suffering as a fact of reality to accept. Long-term psychological states like happiness and suffering are under your indirect volitional control. This doesn’t mean that you can end suffering in a trice, but it does mean that you have options. In this article, we will look at some basic but surprising ways you can mitigate suffering. These correspond to each of three sources of affect discussed in the previous article. In the next article, I will draw out the principle of how one minimizes suffering.

Say “No” to Crow Overload

I mentioned in the previous article that overload is a source of negative affect. It feels bad. If you are overloaded during much of the working day, you suffer. You cannot be happy. If that’s the case, learning to say “no” to overload will raise your baseline happiness.

Everyone gets overloaded at times. Maybe your to-do list has 50 items on it. Or maybe you are just starting a new job and you’re having trouble taking in all of the information. This is a normal, common, predictable fact of life.

You just need to remember that when you are overloaded, it is always possible to reduce the load.

One basic tactic to reduce overload is to offload the ideas to paper. Putting the ideas on paper means you don’t have to use up mental space for them. If you have not learned “thinking on paper” from me, get my free Thinking Directions Starter Kit.

Thinking on paper eliminates overload in many, many situations. But when it doesn’t, you still can reduce the load.

Ultimately, you control your mental load by adjusting your purpose to be something easier or more abstract that you can handle. If you’re overloaded trying to solve a problem, switch to listing possible ways to solve it. If you’re in the weeds on a project, switch to thinking about the overall purpose. If you have 50 items on your to-do list, organize them into a few groups. If you are overloaded by information, switch to doing a quick summary of what you know and what you think you need to know most.

I cannot overstress the importance of reducing the mental load.

Crow overload is a dysfunctional state. If you are overloaded, you have no crow space with which to access your vast storehouse of knowledge. You have cut yourself off from that access. Rather than being committed to full awareness, you are actively denying the possibility of full awareness. You are trying to use your mind outside of its normal operating range.

This is why people make such poor decisions when they are overloaded. You literally cannot judge right or wrong, good or bad, important or unimportant when you are overloaded. Those actions require free mental space in order for the answer you get to be valid, i.e., based on your full knowledge and values. If you are overloaded, you literally do not have the mental resources to do that.

Consciousness possesses identity. It functions how it functions.

All you need to know is that you have direct volitional control over whether you stay in that dysfunctional state or move to a functional one.

Choosing to reduce the load is an aspect of your fundamental choice to be a rational agent. It doesn’t matter how much effort you are expending trying to keep all of those details in mind. What matters is whether you are using your mind in such a way that you can figure out what is in fact in your rational self-interest.

Keep your mind functioning. Just say no to overload.

I have been arguing this point for years, solely on the basis of the logical merits. Here, I am connecting this advice to your happiness. When you exert volitional control to reduce the load, you get immediate relief and you get a chance to deal with the issue, whatever it is—as opposed to letting it fester or explode through lack of attention. By making that choice, you honor your mind and deal with reality. You choose to be a rational agent. That builds authentic self-esteem.

So, don’t say no to overload because I say so. Don’t do it because you see some vague connection to morality. Do it because it’s essential to your happiness!

Mourning as an investment in long-term happiness

The second source of suffering is painful emotions such as despair, guilt, and frustration. To reduce this kind of suffering, I have paradoxical advice: don’t be afraid of the grief that comes with accepting losses.

Some despair is based on a kernel of truth—you really can’t get what you wanted. The person died. Or the opportunity is gone. Some guilt is earned. Maybe you really did make a bad mistake that hurt a relationship. Some frustration is a wake-up call. Maybe this project really will take 10x as long as you thought.

In these cases, what takes the sting out of suffering is to fully accept the loss of a value, whether it be the loss of a loved one, the dashing of an expectation, or the loss of an opportunity that would have been wonderful.

Sadness is not in the same emotional category with despair, guilt, and self-doubt. It’s painful but it is a clean pain, because it is accompanied by clarity: clarity about the abstract value you lost. That strengthens the value and lets you find ways to gain that value in the future. This is why a memorial service can bring inner peace.

I saw this happening before my eyes at a recent memorial for Judy Berliner, a world-famous biologist who taught at UCLA Medical School for 43 years. Eight of her colleagues shared what they had admired about her. The two recurring themes were her rigorous scientific approach and her gentle but direct and honest feedback. Every one of her colleagues reported trying to emulate Judy in their own work and mentoring relationships. Judy is gone, but the values she embodied are still an important part of their lives. And honoring Judy helped to make those values clearer for all of us. I and others felt both saddened and strengthened by this clarity about Judy, her value, and what we’ve lost.

Mourning is not happy, but it focuses you on your values and helps you understand what matters to you. And this lays the groundwork for future happiness. So don’t be afraid of being sad. That’s progress compared to suffering.

Campaign against chronic pain

Finally, let’s turn to the third possible source of suffering: the sensations that report the state of the body. Many of these are unpleasant or painful, such as the pain of bodily injury or the discomfort of illness. If you are young and healthy, this may not be an issue for you, yet. But pretty much everyone eventually needs to deal with chronic pain as they age.

When pain becomes chronic, it is a huge contributor to suffering. When you are in chronic pain, there is a cloud over your life. Your mood is always bad. It is difficult to work, play, or enjoy other people because you are constantly distracted by pain. There is a sense of despair because your life becomes so constrained.

My advice is: don’t give up just because one specialist can’t help you. Make it a personal campaign to figure out how to reduce your particular chronic pain such that you can still live your life in full. Don’t settle for less.

I first had chronic pain in 1995, when I developed acute tendinitis in both forearms from poor form while typing. It was excruciating. I couldn’t type at all for a year. And it was hard to address. The first doctor I went to didn’t take the time to understand my symptoms. As a result, the first physical therapist I went to made the problem worse. It took over a year to get the right doctor, an accurate diagnosis, and effective physical therapy for it. Even then, I would have relapses every six months or so. But I kept my eyes open, and in 1999 I read about the Alexander Technique in the newspaper. (Thank you, Jane Brody.) It looked like the Alexander Technique could provide a permanent solution. It has. I’m a devoted practitioner, and that skill has helped me avoid, eliminate, and reduce pain in my body ever since.

Just recently I used what I know from the Alexander Technique to figure out why handwriting had become painful: I was leaning over the desk more than I used to. It turns out that these days I need to wear reading glasses when handwriting in order to keep my posture in good form. Who knew?

My story of recovery from chronic pain is far from unique. For a more dramatic story, you can listen to the interview I did with Christopher Blakeslee, who has made a Herculean recovery from chronic pain.

It’s 2022 as I write this. It is much easier to find specialized treatments for chronic pain. More is known, more specialists exist, more treatment centers exist. I won’t say that you can eliminate all chronic pain, but it is worth your while to investigate all options. And for sure you can find effective ways to manage your pain, which, by itself, drastically reduces the degree of suffering by eliminating the sense of despair one can feel.

* * *

As I said at the beginning of this article, suffering is under your indirect volitional control. There are many ways that you can eliminate or mitigate suffering by looking at its causes and grappling directly with them. I don’t mean to imply that this process is simple. Often it’s not. But it is possible. And what is more worthy of your own long-term effort than reducing the suffering in your life?

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