What We Gain From Pain
Men's Health Singapore|September - October 2019
What We Gain From Pain

We spend millions to escape discomfort, so why do we also shell out for races, workouts, and other events that hurt so bad? Jamie Millar explores what we get from all that agony.

Jamie Millar

The market for masochism is booming. Forget Ironman triathlons; now there are Deca Ironmans—ten Ironman triathlons in ten days—and endurance races like obstacle courses featuring ice-cold pools, 10,000-volt electric shocks, and tear gas. One of the most popular series, Tough Mudder, has attracted more than 3.5 million participants (20,000 of them with Tough Mudder tattoos) since it began in 2010. Often compared to a cult because of the zeal of its adherents, CrossFit has 15,000-plus locations (more than Starbucks) and an estimated 4 million devotees—outnumbering the populations of Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota combined.

Where there’s pain, of course, there’s gain. That’s how training works: You stress your body so it adapts to handle more stress. But there are more agreeable ways of achieving results—in our airconditioned, centrally heated gyms— which implies it’s pain itself that many of us want.

So why should we seek suffering? Pain—when you choose it—brings more than stronger muscles and bragging rights. Scientists suggest that people seek it out to provide benefits that a comfortable existence just can’t deliver.


You’d think that convenience, luxury, and all our feel-good purchases and pursuits would bring us happiness. Technology, for instance, has saved us from all kinds of hardships: hunter-gathering, cold showers, dial-up Internet. Yet according to the World Health Organization, the most prevalent cause of disability on the planet is depression, affecting 322 million people; that’s an 18 percent increase since 2005.


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September - October 2019