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Suffering is the aversive motivational sensation of conscious beings. The opposite of suffering is pleasure.

  • Suffering may be classified as physical or mental, depending upon whether it refers to a sensation that is linked primarily to the body or to the mind. Examples of physical suffering are pain, nausea, vestibular malaise, air hunger, hunger, and itching.[1] Examples of mental suffering are depression, anxiety, anger, annoyance, frustration, disgust, horror, heartbreak, loneliness, grief, and regret.
  • There is much ambiguity in the use of the words pain and suffering. Sometimes they are synonyms and interchangeable. Sometimes they mean different things, or they may even be used in contradistinction to one another: e.g. "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional", "pain is physical, suffering is mental". Sometimes yet, like in the previous paragraph, they are defined in another way.
  • The intensity of suffering comes in all degrees, from the triflingly mild to the unspeakably insufferable. Other factors often considered along with intensity are duration and frequency of occurrence.
  • People's attitudes toward a suffering may vary hugely according to how much they deem it is light or severe, avoidable or unavoidable, useful or useless, of little or of great consequence, deserved or undeserved, chosen or unwanted, acceptable or unacceptable.

All sentient beings admittedly suffer during their lives, in various manners, and much often dramatically. Therefore, suffering is an important topic in many fields of human activity. Those fields are concerned with, for instance, the personal or social or cultural behaviors related to suffering, the nature or causes of suffering, its meaning or significance, its remedies or management or uses.

Philosophy and ethics

The following articles in Wikipedia are among the most relevant to suffering with respect to the areas of philosophy or ethics: Epicurus, Stoicism, Arthur Schopenhauer, Jeremy Bentham, Hedonic calculus, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, Humanitarianism, Negative utilitarianism, Peter Singer, Richard Ryder’s Painism, Philosophy of pain.


Suffering plays an important role in most religions, be it with respect to consolation or relief, to moral conduct (do no harm, help the afflicted), to spiritual advancement (penance, ascetism), or to ultimate destiny (salvation versus damnation or hell).

In theology, there is a classical problem called the problem of evil: it deals with the difficulty of reconciling the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent god with the existence of evil, of which extreme suffering is often considered one of the worst kinds, especially in innocent children, or in creatures tormented in an eternal hell. The problem of evil has given rise to a special branch of study known as theodicy.

Part of the most fundamental teachings in Buddhism is constituted by the Four Noble Truths about dukkha, a term that is usually translated as suffering. The Four Noble Truths state what are the nature of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation (this way is called the Noble Eightfold Path). Liberation from suffering is considered essential for leading a holy life and attaining nirvana.

Within the Bible, the Book of Job is widely regarded as a profound reflection on the nature and meaning of suffering.

Pope John Paul II wrote a text "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering"[2]. The relationship between suffering and sacrifice in Catholicism is explained under the articles Sacrifice and Redemptive suffering.

Biology, neurology, psychology

Pain and pleasure, in the broad sense of these words, are respectively the negative and positive affects, or hedonic tones, or valences that psychologists often identify as basic in our emotional lives.[3] The evolutionary role of physical and mental suffering, through natural selection, is primordial: it warns of threats, motivates coping (fight or flight, escapism), and reinforces negatively certain behaviors (see punishment, aversives). Despite its initial disrupting nature, suffering contributes to the organization of meaning in an individual's world and psyche. In turn, meaning determines how individuals or societies experience and deal with suffering.

File:MRI Head 5 slices.jpg

Neuroimaging sheds light on the seat of suffering

Many brain structures and physiological processes take part in the occurrence of suffering. Various hypotheses try to account for the experience of suffering. One of these, the pain overlap theory[4] takes note, thanks to neuroimaging studies, that the cingulate cortex fires up when the brain feels suffering from experimentally induced social distress or physical pain as well. The theory proposes therefore that physical pain and mental pain (i.e. two radically differing kinds of suffering) share a common phenomenological and neurological basis.

According to David Pearce’s online manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative, suffering is the avoidable result of Darwinian genetic design. BLTC Research and the Abolitionist Society,[5] following Pearce's abolitionism, promote replacing the pain/pleasure axis with a robot-like response to noxious stimuli[6] or with gradients of bliss,[7] through genetic engineering and other technical scientific advances.

Hedonistic psychology,[8] affective science, and affective neuroscience are some of the emerging scientific fields that could in the coming years focus their attention on the phenomenon of suffering.

Health care approaches

Breaches in health such as disease and injury are a main source of suffering in humans and animals. The huge sphere of health care addresses that suffering in many ways, as can be seen in much details through various Wikipedia articles: Medicine, Psychotherapy, Alternative medicine, Health profession, Hygiene, Public health

Palliative care is presently the branch of medicine that is the most concerned with the relief of suffering as such. A concept of 'total pain' was thought of by pioneer Cicely Saunders for referring to the whole set of physical and mental distress, discomfort, symptoms, problems or needs that are painfully experienced by a patient. Textbooks authors like Robert Twycross or Roger Woodruff are now rather using the expression ‘total suffering’.[9]

Health care approaches to suffering remain highly problematic, according to Eric Cassell, which is the most often cited author on that subject: "The obligation of physicians to relieve human suffering stretches back to antiquity. Despite this fact, little attention is explicitly given to the problem of suffering in medical education, research or practice." "In fact, the central assumptions on which twentieth-century medicine is founded provide no basis for an understanding of suffering. For pain, difficulty in breathing, or other afflictions of the body, superbly yes; for suffering, no." Cassell proposes to define suffering as "the state of severe distress associated with events that threaten the intactness of the person."[10]

Social sciences approaches

Social suffering, according to Iain Wilkinson in Suffering - A Sociological Introduction, is increasingly a concern in sociological fields such as medical anthropology, ethnography, mass media analysis, and Holocaust studies.

The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential is a monumental work by the Union of International Associations. It has three core parts: World Problems (30,000 items), Human Potential: Transformation and Values (7,000 items), Strategies - Actions – Solutions (35,000 items). As it is said in their Notes and Commentaries: “the most fundamental entry common to the core parts is that of pain (or suffering)” and “common to the core parts is the learning dimension of new understanding or insight in response to suffering”.

Ralph Siu, an American author, urged in 1988 the "creation of a new and vigorous academic discipline, called panetics, to be devoted to the study of the infliction of suffering."[11] The International Society for Panetics, founded in 1991, is dedicated to the study and development of ways to reduce the infliction of human suffering by individuals acting through professions, corporations, governments, and other social groups.

In economics, the following articles are relevant to the question of suffering: Well-being or Quality of life, Welfare economics, Measuring well-being, Gross National Happiness, Genuine Progress Indicator.

"Pain and suffering" is the term used in the field of law to refer to the mental anguish and/or physical pain endured by the plaintiff as a result of injury for which the plaintiff seeks redress.

Relief and prevention in collective life

Concerns about suffering come to the forefront in many aspects of collective life:

Uses of suffering

Suffering is implicitly or explicitly mobilized for specific social or personal purposes in many areas of human life:

  • Politics: infliction of suffering is used in war, torture, terrorism; suffering other than physical may be used against competitors in nonviolent power struggles; also, the relief or prevention or avenging of suffering is often used as an argument for gaining support in a discussion or for motivating a course of action.
  • Crime: uses of suffering for coercion, revenge, pleasure...
  • Law: infliction of suffering is used for punishment; having undergone suffering is used as a fact for prosecution or for defense.
  • News media: suffering is often their raw material.
  • Religion: see section above.
  • Business: it makes use of suffering when abusive demands are placed on people or animals for profit.
  • Interpersonal relationships: abuse in family, at school, in the workplace...
  • Personal conduct: in various ways, people find meaning in their lives by striving against suffering[12]; withstanding suffering is used for character-building, spiritual growth, or moral achievement[13]; knowledge of suffering often serves as a motivation to help others; on another hand, psychologists point to the compulsive reenactment of painful feelings in order to protect oneself from seeing their origin in unmentionable past experiences.
  • Sex: sadism and masochism.
  • Sports: suffering for performance, no pain no gain.
  • Arts and literature: see section below; entertainment: violent video games, blood sport.
  • Rites of passage make use of suffering.
  • By the sick or by victims, suffering may be used for primary, secondary, tertiary gain, or for malingering.

See also

Notes and references

  1. [1][2] [3].
  2. On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering
  3. Giovanna Colombetti, Appraising Valence, Journal of Consciousness Studies 12 (8-10), pp. 106-129 (2005).
  4. Pain Overlap Theory
  5. Abolitionist Society
  6. See Vanity Fair interview with Pearce
  7. See Life in the Far North - An information-theoretic perspective on Heaven
  8. Kahneman, D., E. Diener and N. Schwartz (eds.) Well-being: The Foundations of Hedonistic Psychology, Russell Sage Foundation, 1999
  9. See Existential pain — an entity, a provocation, or a challenge? in Journal of Pain Symptom and Management, Volume 27, Issue 3, Pages 241-250 (March 2004)
  10. Eric J Cassell, The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, 2004.
  11. Ralph G.H. Siu, Panetics − The Study of the Infliction of Suffering, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 28 No. 3, Summer 1988.
  12. See Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning
  13. See for instance Francis Fukuyama Our Posthuman Future. Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002 (ISBN 0-374-23643-7)

Selected bibliography

  • Joseph A. Amato. Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering. New York: Praeger, 1990. ISBN 0-275-93690-2
  • Cynthia Halpern. Suffering, Politics, Power : A Genealogy in Modern Political Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. ISBN 0-7914-5103-8
  • Jamie Mayerfeld. Suffering and Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-515495-9
  • David B. Morris. The Culture of Pain. Berkley: University of California, 2002. ISBN 0-520-08276-1
  • Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-19-504996-9

Further reading

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