The Benefits of Pain

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 5 (1):57-70 (2014)
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Abstract

Pain is most often an unpleasant experience that alerts us to actual or possible tissue damage. However, insisting that pain is always bad news may hinder understanding of pain’s many facets. Despite its unpleasantness – or perhaps because of it – pain is known to enhance the perceived value of certain activities, such as punishment or endurance sports. Here, we review evidence for a series of mechanisms involved in putative benefits of pain. A byproduct of pain’s attention-grabbing quality can be enhanced perception of concurrent pleasurable stimuli. This is thought to explain why pain may augment the pleasure of spicy foods. By providing an aversive contrast, pain can also improve the experience of events that follow pain’s offset and lead to pleasant relief. Other potential benefits of pain derive from its ability to inhibit other unpleasant experiences and to elicit empathy and social support. The experience of pain can benefit our defence systems, since pain can enhance motivation to accumulate resources such as social support and calorie-rich foods. It can also reduce the guilt we feel after self-indulgence or moral transgressions. In sum, we highlight a series of potentially positive effects linked to pain. This framework can aid the understanding of why people sometimes seek out, enjoy, and gain rewards from pain as well as pleasure.

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