Who has a higher tolerance for pain: those who experience an acute injury, lots of pain at one time, or those who constantly suffer from pain? The answer is counter-intuitive, and the potential reason is fascinating.
Dan Ariely has found that those who have suffered acute injuries have far higher pain tolerances than those who suffered less severe injuries. This doesn’t mean that these people don’t feel pain, but they simply care less. They literally just tolerate it better. But curiously, Professor Ariely found that those with chronic injuries, the sort of injuries that would ultimately end their lives, had by far the lowest tolerance for pain.
Professor Ariely theorizes that those with acute injuries are better able to tolerate pain because they associate pain with improvement. The pain of treatment or bandage removal or whatever all leads to them getting healthier. It might hurt now, but the pain ultimately means you’ll be getting out of the hospital and back to life. People with chronic pain associate pain with just getting closer and closer to the end. The meaning of the pain, what the victim associates the pain with, either physical improvement or deterioration, is key.
This theory just sounds right, because we witness it in so many other areas of life. Take Thomas Edison, for example: he’s famously attributed as saying that he didn’t fail 3000 times, but instead successfully found 3000 ways that a light bulb didn’t work. Whether he said it or not, this attitude is the same sort demonstrated by acute pain sufferers. If each failure is one step closer to knowing how to solve a problem, your tolerance for failure is going to be extraordinarily high. On the other hand, if you’re like Andre Agassi, whose father berated him as a boy for missing shots on the tennis court, your attitude towards failure is totally different: any failure can be debilitating.
So, once again, it’s all about attitude. If you can associate hard work, or long hours, or any part of the long slog required to produce good work, with tangible success, it makes it much easier to put in that work or those hours. If you can perceive pain as a good thing, as a signal of growth, you can tolerate just about anything. You’ll still feel it, but, since you know that the pain means you’re getting close to your goal, since you have some smaller tangible markers of success along the way, you won’t care about the pain.
Watch Professor Ariely discuss this here: