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Pain Threshold

Not only are Americans becoming less happy—we’re experiencing more pain too.” A headline like this from the Washington Post is bound to grab the attention even of a non-American like me (we Canadians have been habituated to more or less seamlessly insert ourselves into headlines like this over the years—trends in America often more or less map on to those in Canada, even if in ways that aren’t as noisy or impressive… except when we’d rather define ourselves by not being American… or when someone whose name is Trump is involved… or… well, our relationship to America is rather complicated). Anyway, I didn’t see “Canada” in the charts and graphs in the article, so I can only assume that we have somehow been subsumed under the category of America. Based on mostly anecdotal evidence, I doubt the trends would be much different up here in the Great White North.

Anyway, apparently despite the fact that America is a wealthy, technologically advanced industrial nation, people are reporting high levels of pain and unhappiness. This is puzzling, according to the researchers:

As the US is one of the richest countries in the world, and in principle might be expected to have one of the most comfortable lifestyles in the world, it seems strange—to put it at its mildest—that the nation should report such a lot of pain.

Now it could be true that Americans experience objectively more pain and unhappiness than most comparable nations on the planet. It could be true that Americans objectively have more cause for unhappiness than others (I can almost hear American readers shouting something like, “Well of course we’re unhappy, because, well, Trump! And yet human history, not to mention our present political moment, exhibits a depressingly well-populated list of wicked and stupid rulers). It could be true that there is something unique about the objective realities of present-day citizens of the United States of America that render their unhappiness and pain noteworthy.

All of this could be true. But I’m inclined to think that it could only be partly true, at best. This is because the factor that would float to the explanatory surface in my estimation receives only a parenthetical reference in the article:

(for instance, Americans may just be more predisposed to complain about pain than members of other nations)

That seems to me a pretty substantial factor to bury between brackets. I am by nature suspicious of any data that is so heavily dependent upon self-assessment and reporting. This is due in part, no doubt, to the rather bleak theological anthropology that I subscribe to. But I also know that human subjectivity is a pretty huge variable to throw into any equation. When I visit people in the hospital they will periodically be asked to rate their pain level on a scale of 1-10. And, while I know that objective precision is of little import in that moment—they’re treating the subjective experience of pain, after all!—I almost always find myself thinking something like, “But a six for them might be nothing like a six for someone else!” My dad, for example, has a staggeringly high pain threshold. One day he literally dropped a driveshaft on his face and kept working for the rest of the morning. I doubt he even bothered to pop a Tylenol at lunch time. I, on the other hand, have the pain threshold of a toddler. If my dad were to say he was experiencing level six pain, I suspect that I would have lost consciousness hours ago. All sixes are not, it seems blindingly obvious to me, created equal.

So, at least some of the questions we should be asking when we read headlines like this are: “Is it the pain itself or our perception of the pain that is being evaluated here?” “How do our changing expectations affect our assessment of our own pain?” “What role does our sociocultural context and the media that we marinate in play in our self-reporting here?” “What does our ability to relentlessly compare ourselves with others around the world in real time play in how we interpret our own experiences?” “Which understandings of the self and what it is owed are punished and which are rewarded in social discourse?” And others, too, no doubt.

I remember when I was a kid I would sometimes complain to my dad that I was in pain. Sometimes the pain was real. Sometimes, I was just hungry for a bit of attention and possibly even an exemption from an unpleasant chore that was looming. He would often offer a singularly irritating and unhelpful response: “Well, it will be better by the time you’re a grandpa.” This response was usually accompanied by a cheery smile, which made it seem all the more irritating and unhelpful. I didn’t much care about how things would feel when I was a grandpa. My horizons were a bit shorter than that.

But I look back on those experiences now, and I see a lot of wisdom in his response. He was saying in a sense, “Yeah, it might hurt. But life hurts sometimes, and that’s never going to change. And it’s probably not going to kill you. There are people whose experiences are far worse. Get up. Keep going. Dealing with pain is one of the ways in which we develop and grow as human beings.”

(I should hasten to add that on the occasions when I really was injured or in grave pain, it was straight to the hospital for treatment. Lest you think my father was some kind of monster. 🙂 )

I have no doubt that Americans (and Canadians) are unhappy and experiencing pain. And, in many ways, perception is reality. We can parse out how much of the pain is objective and how much is subjective until we are blue in the face, but at the end of the day, it might not matter. There are inherent problems with self-reporting but selves are, in the end, the things that we have to deal with. But I think it’s at least worth taking a step back from data like this and being at least a little bit self-critical. We’re not always the best at interpreting things, even when those things are our selves.

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