Zibby is joined by psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto Paul Bloom to talk about his latest book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. Paul explains the science behind why we often put ourselves in situations that are difficult and what happens that decision backfires as well as how we feel when we achieve the result we were striving for. He also tells Zibby about how he originally got into psychology, his thoughts on how the field has evolved over time, and what project he is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Paul. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.

Paul Bloom: Thanks so much for having me here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I actually was a psychology major at Yale back in the day and took a million classes there. When I saw that was your background, I was very excited to chat.

Paul: Did you take my intro psych course?

Zibby: I took Professor Salovey’s intro psych course.

Paul: My competition.

Zibby: I don’t know, though, I was there — I graduated in ’98, so maybe you weren’t even there yet. I don’t know.

Paul: I got there in ’99.

Zibby: Well, there you go. What else did you teach? I’m pretty sure I didn’t take your class.

Paul: I taught intro psych and a bunch of small seminars on different topics of interest.

Zibby: Interesting. Now we have all of this data about the sweet spot. This is sort of making lemons into lemonade in book form. Why is it good? What good does it do us, for the bad, essentially? I’m not saying that very well. Talk to me about your book and how you came up with this idea and all the reasons behind it.

Paul: I’ve long been interested in why we sometimes choose to suffer. We choose to suffer in big ways and small ways. Some of us like spicy foods or hot baths or songs that make us cry, horror movies, sadomasochistic sex, all sorts of things. To solve these puzzles and figure out, why do we choose to suffer? I began to explore the way suffering leads to pleasure. In the course of this — that starts off the book, talking about these puzzles — I began to become interested in the question of chosen suffering as part of a life well-lived. I talk about all sorts of pursuits we take on voluntarily that are difficult, that involve struggle and pain, including having kids, actually, which is a central part of my book. I’m very interested in why we do this.

Zibby: Why do we do this?

Paul: There’s all sorts of reasons. Sometimes suffering could accelerate pleasure. We’re very good playing with contrast. We might cause ourselves a bit of pain because when it’s over, we get a blast of pleasure afterwards. Sometimes suffering gives us the feeling of mastery and control. Sometimes it gives us an escape from ourselves. Some people talk about high-intensity exercise. They say, when I’m doing it, I don’t think about anything else. Those are all answers revolving around fun. More importantly, my book defends something I call motivational pluralism, which is, we want more than one thing. We don’t just want pleasure. We want to be good people. We often want meaning. We want purpose. We want intimacy. We want variety. Often, suffering and meaning are very tied in together. This sounds like an oversimplification, but I think it’s true. Anything that’s valuable to us, anything we would take pride in, we think is important is going to involve risk and difficulty and anxiety and all that good stuff.

Zibby: When did you get the inkling that this is the book you wanted to write next? What study or what — why this book? What came to the forefront that you were like, oh, yeah, this, I want to examine more?

Paul: My last book was on morality and how to live a good life and how to be a morally good person. This book was kind of fun. I found myself just endlessly listening to people who loved eating spicy foods or training for a triathlon or doing hard things. In fact, this book’s been brimming up within me for a long time. I was happy to get a chance to write it.

Zibby: That’s a very of-the-moment quote, Glennon Doyle’s “We can do hard things,” and that we should all be getting behind this movement just to push through. Are there any downsides to pushing through the hard things?

Paul: Absolutely. Chosen suffering is something which I think is very important. I make a case for it and try to explore why, but people could choose too much, could make the wrong choices. One example is, we get pleasure depriving ourselves of things. Taken too far, it could lead to horrible eating habits, obsessive exercise. It could lead people to actually damage or destroy their bodies. We think suffering is good, but sometimes we go a bit too far on this. When people do good things and enjoy them, there’s studies finding that we discount it. We can take suffering too seriously. For me, the big thing is, my claim is about chosen suffering. I think people get unchosen suffering, the bad stuff that happens to us, really wrong. We tend to be under the mistaken view that that’s necessarily good for us. That’s not really the case.

Zibby: So unchosen suffering is still bad?

Paul: Yes. I’ve been accused of saying unintuitive things in my career. I’ll tell you this. Bad things are bad for you. Your house burns down. You get a horrible disease. Bad. Don’t get it. Try to avoid it.

Zibby: Okay, good tip. I’m kidding.

Paul: You heard it here.

Zibby: What’s a time when you really suffered and it turned out okay in the end as opposed to a time you suffered when it was just purely bad?

Paul: The times I’ve suffered that it was purely bad were suffering I didn’t choose. A very minor thing, which is, my partner and I got COVID over the holidays. That was no picnic. There was no good to it. I guess now we’re not going to get it again, which is kind of nice. There’s nothing good to be said about it. We were just sick. Simple as that. The times where I chose to suffer and it was good, I talk in the book about running the New York Marathon a long time ago. I was out of shape. I didn’t run it very well, but I enjoyed training for it and working at it. It was surprisingly difficult. The difficulty and struggle and anxiety gave it a certain richness to it. That’s why I’m talking about it now. It gave it weight.

Zibby: One might argue that writing a book is a form of suffering.

Paul: You could. In some way, you could say some sorts of suffering have payoffs at the end and don’t really count. You write a book because you have career goals. There’s an idea you want to get out. I think a lot of people have the wrong idea about the good life. They think what makes people fulfilled and the way to live, if you could, is, you get to sit on a sofa and watch Netflix and drink piña coladas and sit by the beach and have all these good times. I’m not against good times. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that people actually really value intense, focused work, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. A flow state is something where you really get immersed in it. You get lost in it. You forget to eat. You forget to pick up the kids at school. You just get lost in it. It’s not fun in any simple sense. It’s what people experience who are athletes, who are musicians, who are writers. I think that there’s a real payoff to that which sometimes gets forgotten.

Zibby: Very true. How did you end up, in 1999, becoming a psychology professor at Yale? Did you know you wanted to be a professor? When did that interest percolate in you? How did you end up there?

Paul: My brother is severely autistic, so when I was a teenager, I would work in camps and programs for kids with autism and other various psychological disabilities. When I was an undergraduate at McGill, I thought I was going to become a therapist working with these kids. I realized that’s not where my heart was. I don’t have the patience. I don’t have the skills. I began to become very interested in research. By chance, I met a professor, John Macnamara, who inspired me, and so I went off to graduate school at MIT. Then I got my first job at University of Arizona for about nine years. Then Yale contacted me and my then-wife. Then we moved to Yale. Now I’m at University of Toronto. It’s been an exciting career trajectory.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. Have you seen a noted shift in the — I know psychology has just gotten more and more mainstream as time has gone in. In the last twenty-plus years that you’ve been doing this, have you noticed a big shift in the people you’re teaching, in the students and their consumption of it or reaction to it, or anything?

Paul: You know, I know a lot of people say that the students they teach have changed. I think often when happens is just, you get older, and people seem different to you. I haven’t noticed that big a shift. I mean, the politics shift. What people like, what offends people shifts in interesting ways. I find a lot of students are very sophisticated. I find a lot of students, when it comes to psychology, are aware of what’s been happening over the last many years, the crisis in psychology where so much of what we’ve said we’ve discovered we haven’t discovered. So much of our work has been overturned as very shoddy. There’s an interest in distinguishing the real science from the nonsense. I find that students tend to be very sophisticated about psychology.

Zibby: In all of your research, have you done research on what the impact of having a sibling with a mental health condition can do or anything like that?

Paul: No, not really.

Zibby: Next book, perhaps?

Paul: Not my kind of thing. It’s pretty clear that there are things genetically comorbid with autism. I think maybe I’m mildly on the spectrum. Many professors are. The determinants of what shapes you and what changes you, it’s another revolution in psychology. We know that genes play a very powerful role. We also know that the environmental forces that shape us are so mysterious.

Zibby: Very true. When you start working on a book, what’s the process like for you? How long does it take you? What does it look like?

Paul: It takes me about a year and a half to two years to write a book. Roughly, I wake up. I get a cup of coffee. I write for an hour each morning. Some exceptions. Sometimes I end up skipping it, whatever. Mostly, I write an hour each morning, typically not any more. Then over a couple years, a book forms. Before that, I’m writing a proposal. I’m working with my agent pitching the proposal. The writing itself, which I love — I love writing a book much more than I love trying to sell the book later on and getting blubs and all that stuff. It’s just unpleasant. I really like writing a book. I just do it in the mornings. The mornings are my most productive time. What about you? Are you also a morning writer?

Zibby: When I actually don’t have my kids and I have the luxury of writing in the morning, yes. My dream would be waking up and just staying in my pajamas all day, but that’s sort of my dream for every day, if I could just work in my pajamas.

Paul: There’s a lot to be said for having kids, but it kind of busts up a morning schedule.

Zibby: It does, yes.

Paul: My sons are off in the world now. I miss them, but I get to work in the mornings.

Zibby: It is good. I’m very much a morning person. I feel like so much in culture is geared toward the night. I wish all the parties were in the morning. I’m always up for a luncheon. Dinners are harder for me. I’m like, ugh, really?

Paul: In a night, I’m in my feetie pajamas watching TV and all that stuff.

Zibby: I’m like, I don’t like going out in the dark, but that doesn’t seem to fly. In COVID times, it’s much more acceptable to always stay home. What project are you working on now?

Paul: I am finishing off, actually, my first draft of a book that’s the story of psychology. Anybody interested in psychology, it’s for them. It talks about everything from parenting to schizophrenia to neurons to the good life. It’s just a book all about psychology, like a textbook, except it’s not.

Zibby: I still have my textbook right back there — I should’ve brought it over — from freshman year. I should probably open it. I’d probably get a lot more benefit than from —

Paul: — It may be outdated now.

Zibby: It may now that everything — well, still. Very true. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Paul: The usual thing is, read a lot. Read a lot in the genre that you want to write in. If you want to write op-ed pieces in The New York Times, read a lot of op-ed pieces. Get a flavor for them. If you want to write magazine articles, self-help books, philosophical, you should really read the literature. Then, in some way, this is an amazing world for people who want to write because there’s so many possibilities to write. There’s countless magazines and countless online sources. You should start small. Try to publish something. First try New York Times, Atlantic, Vox, whatever. Then if you don’t hit those, there’s a whole lot of places to publish. The standard bit of advice I’ve heard from everybody else, which is, if you want to write, write.

Zibby: Good, and try not to let it be too painful, or know that the pain might —

Paul: — A little bit painful is just right.

Zibby: A little bit of painful is just right. Okay, so I’m on the right track. Hopefully, this hasn’t been too painful. Thank you for doing this interview.

Paul: Thank you for talking to me.

Zibby: Take care.

Paul: That was great. Take care. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


THE SWEET SPOT by Paul Bloom

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