“In those days the best painkiller was ice; it wasn’t addictive and it was particularly effective if you poured some whiskey over it.”
There are times when I’d like to convince myself that I’m a pretty macho guy with a lot of pain tolerance. After all, I was in the Army, I boxed (not too well) in college, and I go to the gym to lift heavy objects. So, when I get blasted by a set of allergies, I refuse to do anything about it.
“It’s just a cold,” I tell myself as I wheeze for air through clogged nostrils after having just sneezed for what must have been a Guinness Book of World Records 43rd consecutive time. “It’ll go away soon enough.”
Eventually, the allergy symptoms go away for a while, only to return when the next wave of pollen descends into the atmosphere, causing my immune system to go haywire yet again. Even though I think that the suffering of hay fever and its evil cousins won’t last terribly long, in total, I’ve probably suffered for years and years, since I’ve lost count of when I actually started having allergy symptoms (I can recall having them on both deployments to Bosnia, so approaching twenty years).
Then again, when I tore my meniscus and ACL while running with the dog, I knew right away that there was something wrong, and I couldn’t just throw a little dirt on it or walk it off. Instead, I thought, “#$*$! Torn MCL! [turns out I had the diagnosis wrong; this is why I’m not a doctor] This is going to take forever to get fixed.” I immediately went to the doctor the next Monday to start the process of getting it fixed.
It turns out that even though I expect to suffer from allergies for a much shorter time period than I would expect to suffer from a major knee injury, the reverse is true.
Why is this so?
Because we actually do something about the major pains. Allergies don’t create sufficient enough suffering, or at least in my case, to do something about it to alleviate the pain, so they linger like an unwanted houseguest or the song in the back of your head that you just can’t get rid of. However, when my knee popped, I knew I needed to get medical attention because that was, in my mind, never going to go away otherwise.
Psychologists Daniel Gilbert of Harvard and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia have a term for our misjudgment about the length of time our suffering will take. It’s called the region-β paradox. The reason that we are willing to tolerate some pains more than others is that, at his core, Monkey Brain is lazy (see “Why Do We REALLY Need to Budget?” for more about the region-β paradox). Taking steps to alleviate suffering actually requires effort and energy, and Monkey Brain is inertia defined – an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and Monkey Brain likes his rest.
There are times in our personal lives when we should take action to improve our lot, but we can’t seem to escape the region-β paradox.