Suffering, or pain in a broad sense, may be an experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with the perception of harm or threat of harm in an individual. Suffering is the basic element that makes up the negative valence of affective phenomena. The opposite of suffering is pleasure, or happiness.
Suffering is often categorized as physical or mental. It may come in all degrees of intensity, from mild to intolerable. Factors of duration and frequency of occurrence usually compound that of intensity. Attitudes toward suffering may vary widely, in the sufferer or other people, according to how much it is regarded as avoidable or unavoidable, useful or useless, deserved or undeserved.
Suffering occurs in the lives of sentient beings in numerous manners, and often dramatically. As a result, many fields of human activity are concerned with some aspects of suffering. These aspects may include the nature of suffering, its processes, its origin and causes, its meaning and significance, its related personal, social, and cultural behaviors, its remedies, management, and uses.
The word suffering is sometimes used in the narrow sense of physical pain, but more often it refers to mental pain, or more often yet to pain in the broad sense, i.e. to any unpleasant feeling, emotion or sensation. The word pain usually refers to physical pain, but it is also a common synonym of suffering. The words pain and suffering are often used both together in different ways. For instance, they may be used as interchangeable synonyms. Or they may be used in 'contradistinction' to one another, as in "pain is physical, suffering is mental", or "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional". Or they may be used to define each other, as in "pain is physical suffering", or "suffering is severe physical or mental pain".
Qualifiers, such as physical, mental, emotional, and psychological, are often used for referring to certain types of pain or suffering. In particular, mental pain (or suffering) may be used in relationship with physical pain (or suffering) for distinguishing between two wide categories of pain or suffering. A first caveat concerning such a distinction is that it uses physical pain in a sense that normally includes not only the 'typical sensory experience of physical pain' but also other unpleasant bodily experiences including air hunger, hunger, vestibular suffering, nausea, sleep deprivation, and itching. A second caveat is that the terms physical or mental should not be taken too literally: physical pain or suffering, as a matter of fact, happens through conscious minds and involves emotional aspects, while mental pain or suffering happens through physical brains and, being an emotion, involves important physiological aspects.
- In arts, literature, or entertainment, people may use suffering for creation, for performance, or for enjoyment. Entertainment particularly makes use of suffering in blood sports, violence in the media, or violent video games. A more or less great amount of suffering is involved in body art. The most common forms of body art include tattooing, body piercing, scarification, human branding. Another form of body art is a sub-category of performance art, in which for instance the body is mutilated or pushed to its physical limits.
- In business and various organizations, suffering may be used for constraining humans or animals into required behaviors.
- In a criminal context, people may use suffering for coercion, revenge, or pleasure.
- In interpersonal relationships, especially in places like families, schools, or workplaces, suffering is used for various motives, particularly under the form of abuse and punishment. In another fashion related to interpersonal relationships, the sick, or victims, or malingerers, may use suffering more or less voluntarily to get primary, secondary, or tertiary gain.
- In law, suffering is used for punishment (see penal law ); victims may refer to what legal texts call "pain and suffering" to get compensation; lawyers may use a victim's suffering as an argument against the accused; an accused's or defendant's suffering may be an argument in their favor; authorities at times use light or heavy torture in order to get information or a confession.
- In the news media, suffering is often the raw material.
- In personal conduct, people may use suffering for themselves, in a positive way. Personal suffering may lead, if bitterness, depression, or spitefulness is avoided, to character-building, spiritual growth, or moral achievement; realizing the extent or gravity of suffering in the world may motivate one to relieve it and may give an inspiring direction to one's life. Alternatively, people may make self-detrimental use of suffering. Some may be caught in compulsive reenactment of painful feelings in order to protect them from seeing that those feelings have their origin in unmentionable past experiences; some may addictively indulge in disagreeable emotions like fear, anger, or jealousy, in order to enjoy pleasant feelings of arousal or release that often accompany these emotions; some may engage in acts of self-harm aimed at relieving otherwise unbearable states of mind.
- In politics, there is purposeful infliction of suffering in war, torture, and terrorism; people may use nonphysical suffering against competitors in nonviolent power struggles; people who argue for a policy may put forward the need to relieve, prevent or avenge suffering; individuals or groups may use past suffering as a political lever in their favor.
- In religion, suffering is used especially to grow spiritually, to expiate, to inspire compassion and help, to frighten, to punish.
- In rites of passage (see also hazing, ragging), rituals that make use of suffering are frequent.
- In science, humans and animals are subjected on purpose to aversive experiences for the study of suffering or other phenomena.
- In sex, especially in a context of sadism and masochism or BDSM, individuals may use a certain amount of physical or mental suffering (e.g. pain, humiliation).
- In sports, suffering may be used to outperform competitors or oneself; see sports injury, and no pain, no gain; see also blood sport and violence in sport as instances of pain-based entertainment.
Joseph A. Amato. Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering. New York: Praeger, 1990.
- James Davies. The Importance of Suffering: the value and meaning of emotional discontent. London: Routledge
- Cynthia Halpern. Suffering, Politics, Power: a Genealogy in Modern Political Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
- Jamie Mayerfeld. Suffering and Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- David B. Morris. The Culture of Pain. Berkeley: University of California, 2002.
Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Ronald Anderson. World Suffering and Quality of Life, Social Indicators Research Series, Volume 56, 2015. ; Also: Human Suffering and Quality of Life, SpringerBriefs in Well-Being and Quality of Life Research, 2014.