Is The Key To Happiness Suffering?

Do hard things. It’s good for you.

By Andrea Mew6 min read
Pexels/Mariana Montrazi

From what do you derive pleasure? Is it your new favorite series that you stream episode upon episode during an unhinged binge? No need to wait a whole week to get the answer to cliffhangers at the end of the episode. How about the hefty portions of indulgent takeout food, delivered straight to your door with a quiet little knock and no questions asked – all conveniently ordered through your smartphone? No dishes dirtied, no time spent waiting for the oven to preheat, or no gas mileage added to your car to go out for your evening meal.

Modernity’s abundant spread of services, amenities, automation, and commodities has made us exceptionally susceptible to fragility. We’re infrequently faced with true suffering, and as a result, we’ve grown soft. But it’s not just millennials or Zoomers who grew up with this level of automation for daily duties who are now feeble in the face of adversity. Young and old – an undemanding culture has us all guilty of going soft.

Adversity Forces Your Spirit To Soar 

Is life just a never-ending quest for pleasure? Some people feel that life is all about accumulating as much power and wealth as humanly possible. Others believe that life is predominantly a quest for real meaning – and that sense of meaning only emerges out of suffering.

Before you stop and call me a sadist, no, I’m not suggesting that we should deliberately abuse our bodies, subject our psyches to mental depravity, or govern our lives with an overly frugal, scarcity mindset. I’m suggesting that we should all seek out purposeful work, real love, and difficult situations – all of which significantly increase our sense of meaning.

One book that fundamentally shifted my worldview on the concept of “suffering” was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl, a psychologist who endured true horrors as a prisoner at Auschwitz, meditated on how he and some fellow victims were able to survive the Holocaust while others perished. The wisdom he accumulated through this tragic period of his life lives on through the book, and has clued many – like myself – into the inherent value of adversity.

Evolutionarily speaking, adversity triggers a sense of discomfort in our brains. When confronted with a predicament, we’ve developed a protocol to tap into the depths of our human potential and survive. Frankl asserts that suffering isn’t just about “making the best of things.” No, he teaches that suffering is fundamental to the human experience. It’s “an eradicable part of life, even as fate and death,” so the way we respond to difficult situations can either make us or break us.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross,” Frankl wrote, “gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Frankl observed how the people imprisoned with him at Auschwitz who had a greater purpose to strive for – no matter how bleak their circumstances appeared – were the ones who endured the slew of human rights violations. Perhaps they had a spouse or children who had successfully fled and hid away in another nation and served as motivation to survive to liberation. 

Though mindset couldn’t sustain every prisoner through to liberation, Frankl was consistently reminded of the truth behind the words of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who once wisely mused: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Outsourcing Decisions

The human experience revolves around a set of choices made daily, from ones we decide fully on our own to ones that we’re simply able to react to. But when we relinquish our decision-making capabilities and optimize our lives for peak performance through automation, we actually rob ourselves of meaningful character building. We need to move out of our comfort zones and face the very real possibility of failing

Automation has trained us to be weak in the face of any task that involves a waiting game or even being able to shift our focus onto just one thing. This spans from watching a video start-to-finish with no interruptions to doing our own reading and researching to find where we want to go eat dinner. 

AI capabilities are beneficial in many ways, sure, and it can seem harmless to just ask Siri or ChatGPT to generate restaurant recommendations, but repetitive, banal tasks aren’t just needlessly tedious. Our minds need these regular microdoses of stressors to build up resilience in the face of full-fledged pressure.

“Decision fatigue is the mental exhaustion someone experiences after making a lot of decisions,” wrote Real Simple columnist Elizabeth Yuko in an article last year detailing nine signs that someone has “decision fatigue” and how we can better manage it.

Too many options put in front of us can genuinely cause our brains to go on red alert.

You might have experienced this at the grocery store or while looking through notoriously long restaurant menus (looking at you, Cheesecake Factory), where you see a variety of choices that should theoretically give you joy by being able to tailor your decisions but instead give you anxiety by making you exert mental energy by having to choose. 

Which of the 250 menu items on the 20-plus page Cheesecake Factory menu should you choose? Will you be happier if you share the Ahi Poke Nachos and a slice of Oreo Dream Extreme Cheesecake with your date, or should you show restraint and just order one of the “SkinnyLicious” salads and calorie-free drinks? Will you regret not picking one of the other 249 options on the menu? Will it even matter tomorrow? 

I totally empathize – decision fatigue is a reality in an overabundant, maximalist culture. But would you feel happier if you didn’t have to make any of those tough decisions at all?

Your Body Is Built To Struggle – And Loves It

Well, you may feel placated and perhaps moderately satisfied, but you won’t experience the surprisingly positive psychological growth that we naturally derive from crises – big or small. Allowing ourselves to metabolize a stressful experience, work through the natural emotions we’re feeling, rationally weigh pros and cons, and test how dedicated we are to our values can actually provide surprising benefits. 

Medical researchers have found that a moderate volume of stress can improve short-term memory span, productivity, and concentration by strengthening neural connections in our brain and stimulating production of neurotrophins, brain chemicals that are critical to brain development and protection against neurodegenerative disease.

Interestingly enough, our short-term immunity can also be boosted by regularly experiencing stressors. Neuroendocrinologists have found that this happens because, at the chemical level, our bodies prep for the possibility of bodily harm when responding to stress by producing chemicals known as interleukins that work to help regulate our immune system. 

From the psychological perspective, research shows that if we embrace the challenge of overcoming stress, we naturally lean toward coping mechanisms that help us thrive. In practice, this looks like viewing stress as a form of energy we can weaponize, a hurdle we can learn important lessons from, and something totally normal that all people deal with. 

Maybe you’re trying to run a mile, but the way your heart is pounding in your chest as though you’re dealing with an anxiety attack totally stresses you out. Instead of associating that pounding feeling with anxiety, reframing it as something that your body is producing to help you rise above this challenge and complete a full mile run will help you find meaning in your struggle. 

Studies even show that working overtime to avoid stress actually increases your risk long-term for poor life outcomes like getting fired from your job, dealing with depression, or going through a divorce. This is because associating all stress with “harm” might lead a person to cope in their own harmful ways, like unhealthy eating and drinking patterns, mentally catastrophizing the situation at hand, or procrastinating out of avoidance.

Prep for Success Through True Personal Growth

It’s true – this current generation of Americans has uniquely benefitted from automation and abundance. We don’t fight wars (currently, at least) at home, we’re coddled by one uber-safe learning environment and then funneled to the next, and we’re granted self-indulgence with the click of a button or auditory command. So, if we’re set up to fail in the face of adversity, how can we learn how to harness the power of antifragility?

Personally speaking, I love to keep myself on my toes by always having some amount of work I must do. Sure, a lot of this work includes my own self-imposed deadlines – from finishing an article before I can play Mario Kart with my husband to going to the gym regularly enough to feel mentally balanced when I eat indulgent food or treat myself to an alcoholic drink or two. Because when I don’t enforce some amount of structure or necessity in between cushy moments of good vibes, I feel a lack of purpose.

Growth comes in many forms, however. I only listed off personal growth that comes from completing work or physically challenging your body, but there are endless things that make a fragile person feel like they’re “suffering” that make a person who is learning how to become antifragile feel invigorated. 

This could include disciplining yourself to go to regular services at your church, synagogue, or mosque to grow spiritually, or it could be locking yourself into a devoted relationship set for marriage that forces you to become a better communicator, solve issues as a partner rather than an individual, and work toward a common goal, such as building a family.

One other way that Frankl touches on personal growth is through service. He explained how the “self-transcendence of human existence” is actualized through pointing your energy toward something or someone other than yourself.

“The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself,” Frankl wrote. 

What’s he getting at here? Love for something greater than yourself is more fulfilling, and as we know, true love doesn’t quite exist without some amount of sacrifice – known as agape. This might look like devoting yourself to birthing and raising a child, regularly volunteering your free time for a worthy cause, or embodying the true meaning of being a man’s “ezer,” or strong helper.

Those Darn Ungrateful Kids These Days…

“Having it easy” is not unique to younger generations, though many of us in young cohorts have been raised without any alternative. Each generation has its own unique challenges that are ultimately trade-offs for comfort versus challenge, but technology doesn’t discriminate based on generation. Older generations may have been able to actually afford a house on one income, but they didn’t grow up with the same amount of life-saving medical interventions for diseases and disorders that we benefit from today.

The developments that are automating away our “suffering” are available to Zoomers just as readily as they are available to Baby Boomers – from Ozempic and other weight-loss drugs to smartphones with AI capabilities and more. It’s easier today than ever before to actually be over-educated while genuinely dumber than past generations, which is why many people end up with worthless degrees that don’t translate into technical career paths and lucrative employment.

Trust me – I’m the first person to kick up a stink over skyrocketing inflation, the dreary housing market, and the progressively bloated surveillance state disguised as our federal government. Things can feel pretty bleak, and I’m in no way suggesting blind optimism, but what matters more than the inevitable bleakness is our ability to respond to it in constructive rather than destructive ways.

I urge you to dig down into your life experiences thus far for a moment. Consider a moment where you felt some amount of suffering and ask yourself what you learned from it. 

I know when I was fresh out of my parents' household and navigating my first car lease and corresponding vehicle insurance or trying to figure out my taxes without my dad’s accountant, I recall significant moments of anxiety and strain on my mental health. But these moments in life are a test of our character, and how we respond can change our trajectory for the better. 

Did I respond in defeat and fully defer to someone else to solve my problems for me as though I had never flown the coop at all? Or did I do my own research and perhaps read more about federal tax forms than I ever thought I’d need to? Struggling through the latter, I feel better prepared in life to face new challenges as they arise because I know my mental reaction to adversity and I’ve developed a more pragmatic way to problem solve.

Closing Thoughts

Again, I’m not encouraging anyone to struggle needlessly. Since human beings are social creatures, we’re meant to work with one another to thrive rather than go full manosphere-esque monk-mode and pretend as though we can accomplish anything alone. Rather than pointing fingers at one generation or another in a competition of who “has it easier,” we should really be more aware of how all generations are currently being seduced into docility and made dependent on technological automation. 

Regularly deprogram your dependence on the matrix so that you can refocus your mental (and physical) energy on true personal growth. Adversity isn’t something to fear – it’s something to seek out and rise above.

Support our cause and help women reclaim their femininity by subscribing today.