In her exercise videos, Jane Fonda made the phrase famous. “No pain, no gain.” This idea captures a core truth in psychoanalysis—so much so that Sigmund might have said it himself!
Freud put forward the idea that there are essentially two guiding methods by which we can approach life. We all begin with the first, and some of us get the hang of the second as time goes by.
The first way of approaching life is by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. It is a very simple system. If it feels good, then eat it, take it, or do it. If it feels bad, then spit it out, get rid of it, or avoid it. This works pretty well for most organisms. It is a simple, rudimentary system that helps even bacteria survive! For a little while, it works pretty well for people, too. During the first few months of our lives–when life is pretty simple and all we need to do is eat, poop, and sleep–the pleasure-pain principle is a winning strategy. Smile and coo if it feels good; frown and scream bloody murder if it feels bad. In either case, mom will come running, and all will be well.
The second way of approaching life is to willingly take on painful experiences now in an effort to have gains later. I know, it sounds a little crazy, but bear with me. This second strategy underlies the psychological concepts of “delayed gratification” and “frustration tolerance” which are so essential as we mature because they have direct bearing on everyday matters like standing in the grocery store line, putting money in your savings account, going to college, and even biting your tongue when you want to yell at the guy on the freeway who just cut you off. Freud called it “the reality principle,” because he believed that these capacities are necessary if we are to deal with the complex reality of adult life in an effective way. I call it hard work.
One of the main principles of life is that our attitude toward work makes or breaks us. If we live out our whole lives under the sway of the pleasure-pain principle, we will never make the kinds of investments that lead to a successful, satisfying life. We will never learn to walk, speak, ride a bicycle, or bake a cake. We will eat too much and exercise too little. We will spend too much and save too little. We will be taken over by our greed which will never be satisfied. We will miss opportunities because we are too frightened to take a risk. We will avoid having intimate relationships (or, really, any relationships at all) because relationships by definition involve conflict, pain, and separateness—which we will not be able to stand, even though that means we will never love or be loved. Put simply, we will waste away because we never challenge ourselves to do anything that means anything. Freud also called the pleasure-pain principle the Nirvana principle. But when you stop to think about it, Nirvana in reality is a pretty miserable place.
Lucky for us, though, we are capable of more than that. The reason we are capable of more than that is because we have minds. We human beings have the potential to shape our lives in extremely productive ways so that we can learn, grow, be in relationship, and develop a lasting sense of security even in the face of threats and challenges. But the mind needs to be developed, and the only way it can be developed is to be challenged. Like the body, the mind needs to be exercised in order to get stronger. And the way the mind is exercised is by taking on painful, confusing, and frustrating experiences and building the capacity to deal with them.
Wilfred Bion, a British psychoanalyst who came to Los Angeles in the late 1960’s, thought a lot about how we grow our minds by learning through experience, by facing frustration rather than evading it. He thought of this process as developing mental muscle. I love that image. Just like we must challenge the body to develop physical muscle, so we must challenge the mind to grow mental muscle. It cannot happen in a vacuum. It cannot happen without pain. It cannot happen in Nirvana. We must push ourselves to engage with the real world, in all of its complexities, with all of its challenges, in the face of its uncertainties and even our fears. We must feel the burn.
Hard work grows the mind.
By growing the mind through this kind of hard work, we reap great rewards. We develop more capacity to deal with life. What once seemed difficult now seems pretty easy. What once frightened us now feels like no big deal. And if that weren’t satisfying enough, there’s even a bonus! Because we can see that we have gotten stronger, we have greater confidence that we can grow even stronger still. This is the basis of feeling capable, which I think is one of the most important underpinnings of mental health.
In putting off today’s pleasures by investing in tomorrow’s rewards, we tend to be healthier, happier, and more successful. Why is this? Fundamentally, I think we reap these rewards because we have earned them. Now, I don’t mean that we’ve earned them like we’ve been good little boys and girls and so now we get our prize. I mean we have earned them in the sense that we have worked for them and so we can feel confident, deep in our bones, that they belong to us. Rewards that come by luck are fleeting, because we know we didn’t do anything to bring them about. But rewards that come through hard work feel more lasting and make us feel more secure because we know that we deserve them—and that, if we keep working, we can even have more of them.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
He sure got that right.