The Uniqueness of Human Suffering - Dundurn
Jan 06, 2022

The Uniqueness of Human Suffering

Life can be hard. Harder for some than others, but not just because life doles out hardship inequitably. Some of us actually inflict extra misery on ourselves.

Neuroticism, one of the Big Five personality traits, represents a cluster of attributes that vary by individual; people who rank higher for neuroticism are more sensitive, more reactive, and more inclined toward negative thoughts and feelings. But undesirable, self-inflicted suffering affects every single one of us. We are all more neurotic than we need to be—more than serves our purposes.

There are two obvious forms of suffering: chosen and unchosen. The former is pain that we pursue because it serves a purpose, such as a strenuous workout. The latter is unavoidable, such as illness or injury. But there’s a less obvious third form of suffering: unchosen but avoidable. How can suffering be both unchosen and avoidable? Because it arises from automatic ways of thinking and feeling that are unproductive but correctable. It’s unchosen because we inflict it on ourselves instinctively. But it’s avoidable because an understanding of its origins gives us the opportunity to mitigate it. Those who rank higher on the neuroticism scale are more vulnerable to this invidious form of suffering, but only by degree.

Other animals don’t have to contend with this third form of suffering since it only arises from the extraordinary complexity of the human brain. But the mental complexity that makes being human hard also gives us many more degrees of freedom than other animals. We have the cognitive flexibility to step away from the storms in our head to examine what upsets us and evaluate the legitimacy and usefulness of our upset. That is huge. Yet this amazing feat doesn’t come easily or naturally to us. We default to anger, self-righteousness, bitterness, hurt, and jealousy much faster than we engage in the “unnatural” work of distancing ourselves from our suffering so that we can be open to the possibility that our negative emotions might not be justified — or, at the very least, open to the likelihood that the intensity of our negative emotions is disproportional to the events that trigger them.

I wrote Hard to Be Human because I’m fascinated by the human proclivity for chosen but avoidable suffering—the unforced errors we make by virtue of our pervasive but preventable cognitive flaws. More importantly, I wrote it to share the tools that philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists have developed to minimize the third suffering and make life easier.

Ted Cadsby is a corporate director, consultant, and bestselling author. Ted led 18,000 employees as the executive vice president of Retail Distribution at CIBC. He also served as president and CEO of CIBC Securities Inc., chairman of CIBC Trust Corp., and chairman of CIBC Private Investment Counsel Inc. As a speaker on decision-making, team effectiveness, and leadership, Ted has been extensively interviewed by the national media. He lives in Toronto. Learn more here.