Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale. He ran the New York Marathon and has some thoughts about what might attract people to seriously pursue amateur running. His new book is called The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.
iRun: Reading your book, I felt seen. Where did you get the idea?
Paul Bloom: I was always interested in the puzzling things people like to do, like eating spicy food, hot baths, BDSM and scary movies. I think training for a marathon or triathlon would fit in with that.
iRun: You ran the marathon, right?
PB: It was 2002, a long time ago, when my kids were younger and I was living in New Haven. I got in by lottery and had never run before, but I wanted to train. It was hell, but I willingly did it and was happy I did.
iRun: Suffering as a means of achieving pleasure?
PB: I started off thinking that’s what it would be, but as I got deeper I began to see it more like the search for meaning and purpose.
iRun: What do you mean?
PB: Originally I looked at suffering as a cheat code to get pleasure—like the spicy food and the pain of the spice makes the cold beer afterwards that much more delicious—but I began to see there was more to it. The first time I ever rolled in a Brazilian jiu jitsu against someone younger and stronger than me, it was difficult and stressful and a little bit frightening. But when it was over I realized that during the entire time I thought of nothing else.
iRun: Running speed sessions are like that for me. Takes me away from myself.
PB: A lot of running long distances doesn’t have that quality, but high-intensity training can take you out of your head and all you’re focusing on is what your body is doing. It’s what proficient meditators do—but if you’re not proficient, it’s the opposite. It gives you a break from yourself, from your thoughts.
iRun: I love that.
PB: There’s plenty of pleasure people achieve in long-distance running, some is just the practicality of wanting to look good or having a goal to fulfil, a feeling of mastery and also that notion of putting your body through pain and suffering and stress and maintaining that by a sheer force of will is an extraordinary thing.
iRun: I think goal-setting is huge.
PB: Humans are goal-seeking creatures. We like long-term goals and to work to satisfy them.
iRun: What was the marathon like for you?
PB: Running a marathon to me made no difference in my life. I mean that if I was much slower nobody would care. I wasn’t going to win. Maybe I’d earn some boasting rights, but not really. However, it was something I really worked for. I trained for a year to get into basic shape just to get off my sofa and I had obstacles, blisters, injuries . . .
iRun: And in the end?
PB: It’s pursuing the negative to balance out the positive.
iRun: I always think about that. Why am I voluntarily putting myself not exactly in harm’s way, but certainly making myself uncomfortable to the point of perhaps injury—certainly nausea.
PB: A lot of people engage in what I call benign masochism everyday—low-level pain and we don’t know why we do it, we just know we like it.
iRun: That’s running to a tee.
PB: The brain is a “difference engine.” All of your experiences are defined and characterized in comparison to something else—either what you’ve experienced or what you’re expecting.
iRun: So it’s why sometimes pain feels good at the end of a race.
PB: If you experienced that feeling out of the blue, you might think you were having a heart attack. But if you feel it at the end of a race, it’s almost pleasurable. Sprinters and long-distance runners, whether they know it or not, are geniuses at manipulating pleasure—sometimes to give pain, sometimes to give satisfaction.
iRun: Voluntary pain and suffering.
PB: At the end of my marathon, I was in bad shape. I had a stitch in my side and was having trouble breathing. I was soaked in sweat and the world was a bit blurry. Horrible things. But, I knew it was due to my efforts. I could see myself coming to the finish line.
iRun: How’d you feel?
iRun: I think runners play with pain to maximize the contrast with future pleasurable experiences.
PB: Runners know that. Say you set a goal on a long run and decide to kick up the pace for 30 seconds at the end of every other mile. That makes the miles when you’re not kicking up the pace that much simpler. It’s hard and painful, but it’s good training and, in some ways, a cure for boredom.
PB: Running for two hours at the same pace gets boring, but if you mix it up, establish a contrast, it might be really hard, but it might also make the entire run feel like it goes faster, that it’s over sooner. That it was a better experience.
iRun: Another big thing you touched on earlier is the sense of mastery. Even in picking out what to wear and setting your watch and arriving at the start line on time—what we eat. Runners like being able to control what we can.
PB: Pleasure is just pleasure. It’s great. But it’s not the same as mastery. Which is an opportunity to feel good about your control over things.
iRun: What do you mean?
PB: Abstaining from things and brutal efforts all conspire to give you an experience of autonomy, which translates into mastery and, ultimately, joy.
iRun: In your book, you make a great point about how charities find success in having their donors complete runs or bike rides in addition to just raising funds.
PB: A while ago the ice bucket challenge where you dump a bucket of freezing cold water over your head for ALS went viral. It’s strange why we inflict pain on ourselves. Why not, for charity, sit on a beach and get a back massage? But in the context of our conversation, pain can be a good thing. It makes the donation to a charity seem like part of a meaningful pursuit.
iRun: It’s also sort of what makes life worth living. Like you’ve accomplished something, to make it through something hard. I think that’s what makes running addictive.
PB: It does have an addictive flavour because it offers things that other activities don’t. Is it that we’re addicted to pain? I don’t know. Running is certainly the right sort of pain that you can’t get anywhere else.
iRun: I love that.
PB: Think about it this way with running: it hurts as much as it’s worth.