What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Stronger (How Embracing Pain Leads To Personal Gain)
Pain, suffering, stress, these are the great obstacles to our personal happiness. If we could eliminate all forms of pain in our life, everything would be so much better. Or would it?
Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Sounds profound, to be sure, but is it a philosophy we should use to guide our lives, or is it just something that sounds cool?
Maverick scientists have discovered the answer to this question, and the implications of their research is potentially life-changing. These are the kind of findings that we rarely hear about, because what you’re about to learn challenges the fundamental assumptions our culture makes about what it takes to be happy and successful.
The Importance of Pain
If you were to simplify human behavior to its most basic roots, it would be stated like this: We seek pleasure and avoid pain. We chase good food, money, and sex because getting those things gives us pleasure. We avoid conflict, fire, and our in-laws to avoid pain.
Seek pleasure, avoid pain — it’s an elegant system. . . except that it often fails us. Those things that give us pleasure in the moment lead to long-term pain. Conversely, those things that cause us pain in the moment, lead to long-term pleasure.
Eating fast food feels good in the moment, but it has a negative impact on our long-term health. Smoking cigarettes feels good in the moment, but it’s the number 1 cause of avoidable deaths in America.
On the other hand, going to the gym is uncomfortable when we first start, but it has numerous benefits to our long-term health and well-being. Similarly, asking your crush out on a date can be extremely anxiety provoking, but it could lead to a meaningful relationship.
We seek pleasure and avoid pain, but to create a better life tomorrow, we must accept pain today. We are hard-wired to avoid pain at all costs. That’s why 70% of Americans are overweight (according to the CDC), and that’s also why 480,000 Americans die due to smoking every year.
To live a good life, we must re-wire our relationship to pain so that pain is not something we avoid, it’s something we embrace. That’s why Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
How Marshmallows Predict Long-Term Success
The Stanford marshmallow experiment is one of the most influential bodies of psychological research of all time. In these studies Psychologist Walter Mischel found that one particular trait is more connected to long-term success than even your intelligence score.
In this series of studies, Walter Mischel had young children make seemingly innocuous choices. For example, in one study, children could either eat one marshmallow immediately, or wait fifteen minutes to be rewarded with two marshmallows later.
The children were being tested for their ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward to gain a larger reward in the near future.
Many of the children caved in to their desire for instant gratification. Some were able to hold out and earn the two-marshmallow prize.
No, this study wasn’t about torturing kids, it was about measuring self-control (AKA willpower). Mischel wanted to see if the children who were able to delay their gratification for 15 minutes would have different life outcomes than those who could not.
Over the next 40 years, the children who took part in the marshmallow experiment were measured in terms of their SAT scores, their level of education, their body mass index, among other things.
The children who were able to wait 15 minutes for the two-marshmallow reward scored an average of 210 points higher on their SAT’s, had a substantially higher level of educational attainment, made more money, and had a lower body mass index than those who could not wait.
That’s right, a child’s ability to wait 15 minutes for a second marshmallow played a bigger role in their educational success than did their intelligence scores.
The Stanford Marshmallow experiment was measuring willpower, which in layman’s terms is defined as our ability to accept short-term pain, for a long-term gain. Willpower helps us accomplish two important tasks:
1. It allows us to resist temptations (I.E. The temptation to smoke a cigarette).
2. It allows us to do something that is uncomfortable in the short-term (I.E. Going to the gym).
Psychologist Roy Baumeister made a fascinating discovery about willpower that can help guide us towards success and happiness.
Baumeister found that willpower acts like a muscle. When you lift weights, you exhaust your muscles, but they grow back stronger than before. Willpower works exactly the same way, you only have a limited supply of it, but the more you use it, the stronger your willpower becomes.
Having a strong willpower is extremely beneficial. According to research, willpower is not only the key to losing weight and accomplishing your goals, but people with strong willpower are also less prone to anxiety and depression and are better at maintaining strong relationship with others.
And all these benefits are accessible to anyone, even if you weren’t born with a strong willpower, because you can train your willpower like a muscle.
If you want to train your willpower, the best strategy is similar to effective muscle building. Your goal should be to stretch your willpower, not break it. If you’d never been to the gym before, and you wanted to build muscle, you wouldn’t start by trying to bench press 200 pounds, to do so would only get you crushed.
Similarly, if you want to build willpower, you must set goals that aren’t too overwhelming. Otherwise, you’ll just burn out and give up.
Here’s a few examples of activities that can help you build willpower:
- Following a diet
- Taking cold showers
- Creative work
- Practicing an instrument
- Quitting a bad habit
Anything that requires you to embrace short-term pain for a long-term gain will build your willpower. Just like the pain of lifting weights will build your muscle, the pain of giving up sugar, will build your willpower.
And willpower is a universal resource, meaning the same willpower you use to resist the temptation to eat sugar, will also help you stick to a fitness regimen. Building willpower in one area of your life will help you exercise self-control in all areas of your life. Which, according to the research of scientists like Walter Mischel and Roy Baumeister, will lead to a richer, more successful existence
That’s why, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
If you want to learn more about the specifics of how to set realistic goals that will help you build your willpower, check out my previous article, “How to beat procrastination.”